Civil Liberties

Why Jameis Winston Is a Huge Exception in the Campus Rape Debate

Some rape accusations are true. Some are not.


The Hunting Ground
The Hunting Ground

For a moment, it looked like leftist-feminist assumptions about a purported epidemic of rape on college campuses had stumbled in the face of too much contrary information. But the campus rape narrative is thriving again, thanks to a new documentary on the subject that revisits the accusations against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.

The documentary is called The Hunting Ground—a title which implies that campuses are predatory environments for young women—and features interviews with alleged victims of sexual assault who were mistreated by the administrators that handled their cases. It's not been released yet, but debuted to considerable acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival. The trailer brands the campus rape crisis an "enormous" problem and suggests that colleges are complicit in an elaborate cover up of sex crimes.

The Hunting Ground is getting a lot of attention, however, for one major reason: It includes an interview with Florida State University's Erica Kinsman, who accused FSU star quarterback Jameis Winston of raping her on December 7, 2012. Unlike many victims of campus sex crimes, Kinsman contacted the police immediately after the incident transpired. But despite some DNA evidence supporting Kinsman's claims, prosecutors declined to bring charges against Winston. He was also cleared in an FSU code of conduct hearing.

In the film, Kinsman explains that a male student she didn't know bought her a drink at a bar. It made her woozy, and by the time she regained awareness, it was too late: He was raping her back at his apartment. Later, she identified Winston as the attacker. According to The Daily Beast, DNA evidence supported the notion that Winston had raped her.

Kinsman alleges that the Tallahassee police badly mishandled the case. And the officer who conducted the investigation might have had a conflict of interest; he was also a security officer for the Seminole Boosters, an athletic club that fundraises for FSU sports teams.

All that considered, did Winston commit a terrible crime and get away with it? It's impossible to say for sure, but many of the facts do seem to support that conclusion.

But contrary to what many anti-rape activists—including the producers of The Hunting Ground—would have us believe, the Winston case does not resemble the vast majority of campus sexual assault disputes.

KC Johnson, a writer and history professor at Brooklyn College best known for his reporting on the Duke lacrosse case, told Reason that the dispute involving Winston was "almost wholly unrepresentative" of rape cases in general. Unlike Kinsman, most accusers bring their claims to the campus adjudication process, often belatedly. And unlike Winston, most accused students have low campus profiles and scant institutional resources aiding them.

"Based on what's been reported in both the Florida newspapers and nationally, it seems as if Winston received preferential treatment from the Tallahassee Police, and that this treatment precluded any fair resolution of the claim through the judicial process," he wrote. "The idea that most accused college students at most universities would have been treated this way, however, is absurd."

Johnson was not surprised that the authorities would stack the deck in favor of a star athlete from a revenue-generating sport, noted legacy admission, or scion of an important donor family. But these cases, "represent a tiny percentage of the overall number of students accused of sexual assault," he wrote. "The typical student, instead, remains exposed to the guilt-presuming ideological environment of today's campuses."

Certainly, rapists go unpunished. Many universities struggle to adjudicate sexual assaults fairly: Some deprive the accused of due process, while others deprive legitimate victims of justice. And while the police are better equipped to investigate these disputes than college administrators, the criminal justice system often fails survivors of sexual assault. In other cases, it ruins the lives of wrongly accused men.

The trouble comes when people buy in to a one-sided narrative—when they insist that a full quarter of college women will be raped, or that all accusations should automatically be believed, or that colleges everywhere have universally conspired to mishandle sexual assault. Activists have trained themselves to see a pattern, but the truth is a series of random blips. Some occurrences will seem to confirm people's worst fears about the campuses to which they send their daughters, while others will force people to reevaluate their biases in light of the ease with which they believed an absurd story.

Indeed, on that last front, consider this New York Times review of The Hunting Ground, which accepts the film's contention that universities are trying to cover up assaults and asserts that reporters who uncover the truth face a backlash from these institutions:

Underscoring the degree to which media scrutiny of campus rape can provoke swift and severe pushback, Rolling Stone in November was forced to step away from a provocative article focused on accusations of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The magazine acknowledged that it had erred in relying solely on the word of the accuser, named only as Jackie, and did not try to contact the men she accused.

This is utter nonsense. Rolling Stone wasn't forced to take back its UVA article because the message was unpopular, it was forced to take it back because the story was false. That Rolling Stone's unmitigated disaster of an entry in the campus rape debate could be cited this way—as an example of how difficult it is for accusers to tell their stories—is proof that adhering to the narrative means constantly hammering square pegs into round holes.