Andrea Pino at a news conference, the University of North Carolina, January 30, 2013. Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP.
I began taking more political science classes and I enrolled in Feminist Political Theory. We were assigned most of Catharine MacKinnon’s readings and her work. I read that she had written a legal brief arguing that sexual harassment was a violation of Title IX. I thought, “Interesting. Everything is coming full circle. My classwork is coming full circle. What I’m doing in this committee is coming full circle.”
When I read MacKinnon’s work and I learned about the case she wrote that brief for, Alexander v. Yale, I began to realize that the arguments the plaintiffs brought forth against Yale in 1979 were similar to the ones survivors at UNC were arguing. I met dozens of other survivors at UNC and had never heard of a single case in which an accused assailant had been found responsible, much less expelled. That was the final straw for me. Then I realized that we could no longer work within the system. That was a very difficult decision. I loved my school. Since I got to Carolina I’ve worn the school’s seal around my neck; getting into Carolina is still one of the happiest moments of my life. It was something that I worked so hard for. Everything about the Carolina Way and about the institution’s history is something that is so integral to my identity.3 I realized if I loved my school, I had to fight to change it. I never wanted to shame UNC. I never wanted UNC to get in trouble. I simply wanted things to change. It was when I was told the policy was set in stone, that this is how it had been for decades and that nothing was going to change, I realized that something had to change.
I realized if I loved my school, I had to fight to change it.
[From MacKinnon] I learned that you don’t have to have an attorney to use Title IX. The cool thing about filing a federal complaint is that you simply write your complaint directly to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. That’s it. It’s essentially as close to filing a lawsuit as you can without passing the bar. You could be a twenty-year-old and take on a 200-year-old university without legal help. That’s what we decided to do. We weren’t going to wait until we found an attorney who would take our case pro bono. We didn’t have the time for it.
Annie and I decided to look up as much as we could around the case law of Title IX that happened until then, about the cases of the Jane Does and John Does that were not being covered. We were able to put together this framework arguing that sexual assault was a violation of Title IX because no student can feel safe if they are afraid of the fear of sexual assault. That’s not to say that we were pioneers; this had been argued before. What made us a little different was that we were among the first students who filed a complaint publicly, not anonymously, and without legal representation.
We wrote a letter to [the student newspaper] the Daily Tar Heel and said that I, Andrea Pino, and Annie Clark were going to file a federal complaint in January of 2013. Everyone laughed at us. I had meetings with a couple of the higher administrators. They were promising that they were going to take it seriously and they were going to change their policy. I said, “I’m not confident enough that you are going to change anything.” We filed our complaint in January of 2013. We did so with a press release that said that UNC is one of many schools that are struggling with this. At the time, we did not know this was going to become the movement that it did.
It wasn’t so long after that we began hearing from other survivors. It was repeated across dozens of campuses time and time again. We realized that this was going to be way bigger than we ever imagined. We started talking with these survivors, and they reached out to us through Twitter, through Facebook, through LinkedIn even, wanting to do what we did. We developed this model of being able to teach survivors how to file complaints.
This is one of the times when I began to read more refined research on media framing in particular. I had a theory that a movement would happen if we could frame sexual assault as being thematic, not episodic. To do that, you would have to create a climate in which survivors felt safe coming forward publicly, using their names instead of being Jane Does. We know the media aren’t trained to connect a story thematically, because they don’t cover crime as being thematic. What if we could force them to do so? With sexual assault, it’s often seen as the one case of which a girl possibly put herself in a certain place that made it happen. Whereas if you were to see thematic coverage, the media would have a better grasp that women are targeted on campus. It’s not that the girl put herself in a bad place; it’s a bigger problem beyond that. It’s a culture of harassment and a culture of violence that is happening on every college campus.
The way we were going to solve this is, if the media were not going to cover our stories collectively, then we were going to force them to do so. We started connecting survivors across the country. We all did a public press conference and filed together. That became really powerful to get the media to cover it that way.
In March of 2013, I heard from [reporter] Richard Pérez-Peña. He reached out to me and said, “I’ve been following your social media and there seems to be a movement that’s building.” His article, which at the time I did not realize was going to be as big as it was, became one of the first thematic news stories around campus sexual violence. It was on the front page of the New York Times website when I was in my Women’s Studies 101 class that semester. I remember clutching at my chest and thinking, “Oh my God, I’m on the front page of the New York Times.” It was a photo of me and Annie.
It was on the front page of the New York Times website when I was in my Women’s Studies 101 class that semester.
Since then, it’s only gotten more and more and more coverage. It went from the New York Times to be covered by Time, to be covered by MSNBC, and to be covered by CNN. It’s something that completely exploded after that. So did the calls from survivors who were trying to get ahold of us.
My residence hall had been broken into on Easter Sunday . I began feeling very unsafe at Carolina. They had spray-painted on my bulletin boards with phallic symbols; they left a knife behind; and there were fingerprints across the hall from me. I decided I was going to take some time off. I moved out to Oregon to work with Annie. It was then that Annie and I, together with Alexandra [Brodsky], a former Yale student that filed a Title IX complaint in 2011, and Dana [Bolger], an Amherst student activist, began talking about formalizing and creating somewhat of a network. Alexandra and Dana ended up formalizing an awareness campaign called Know Your IX. Annie and I went on to create an organization called End Rape on Campus [EROC]. They are two different organizations that we created around the same time. Know Your IX was focused on more of a campaign educational approach informing students of their rights. EROC is a direct-service organization. We support survivors in finding counsel, in finding mental health care, and predominantly supporting them in taking action. That’s what most of our work comes from.
One of the things that is most frustrating to me now is that while there seems to be a lot of interest in this issue, there doesn’t seem to be a pipeline for funding it. My income in 2013 was $4,000 for the entire year. That was when Kirby [Dick] and Amy [Ziering] reached out to us and said, “Would you like to move forward with the work on this documentary [The Hunting Ground]?” Of course, to a theorist like me who works on media framing, what an awesome opportunity to create a documentary. Talk about perfect thematic framing, creating a documentary that can be used as a tool to propel the idea of the thematic problem of campus sexual assault. Of course I said yes and packed my bags for Los Angeles.
The PTSD had completely taken over my life. It wasn’t just my assault; it was more the vicarious trauma of listening to some of these survivors. I didn’t have money for therapy. Later, that fall, I got really sick—it turns out it was a severe staph infection. I was given prednisone to help with the inflammation that it was causing; I ended up having medical poisoning because of it. I became severely suicidal for about twenty-four hours. I ended up being taken to the psychiatric ward. Even though I wasn’t admitted, being in the hospital even for a short time, I realized that I had given up everything to [that] point. Because of all this work, I did not have a body that was working for me anymore. That moment in the psychiatric ward completely changed how I was an activist thereafter. I was working twenty-four hours a day, if not with the film, it was with survivors. I had given up everything: my education, my life, and my body. It was some of the hardest times of my life.
These are things you don’t really see in The Hunting Ground. What you don’t really see in all the coverage about me is that I gave up everything to become an activist and to dedicate my life to this issue. The one thing that I gave up that really haunts me is that I gave up my education. When I returned to Carolina in January of 2014, I was told I wasn’t going to graduate because I did not have the needed courses that I thought I had. It was three intro-level classes; it wasn’t even a whole semester’s worth. It was three classes that I had forgotten to take but I couldn’t take when I was gone.
At the same time, when I was taking my finals, Annie and I decided to go to D.C. because we had a meeting with the White House. We decided to walk to the Capitol and then walk to the Russell Building. We stumbled onto Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand’s office. Senator Gillibrand had this very nice receptionist named Bo, and we said we’d like to meet with someone to talk about sexual assault. Bo looked at us in a way like, “Girl, that’s not how it works.” [Laughter.]
Senator Gillibrand had this very nice receptionist named Bo, and we said we’d like to meet with someone to talk about sexual assault. Bo looked at us in a way like, “Girl, that’s not how it works.”
Then out came Brooke Jamison, who is the legislative director, and Alyson Kelly, the legislative aide at the time. They’re looking at us like, “You’re clearly in college. You’re clearly a student. So what are you two talking about?” We told them how we were two activists, how I had given up everything to work on this issue and my life had really changed. Our schools weren’t paying attention. You could tell they were [like], “Oh my God.” We talked for forty-five minutes. We were in the middle of the hallway in the Russell Building surrounded by marble columns.