Sexual Assault: The View From Missoula

May 28, 2015

Missoula, Jon Krakauer’s account of “Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” is strikingly detailed look at what rape on college campuses looks like today.  He focuses on several rapes at the University of Montana (in Missoula) using his skills as a researcher and reporter to lay out what happened in the encounters and how they were handled by the university and by local law enforcement.

rape posterTowards the very end, Krakauer tells how he came to write the book. He learned that “a  woman in her late twenties with whom my wife and I have a close relationship had been raped when she was in her mid-teens by a male peer” (p 347).  A few years later she was raped again by a trusted family friend. “The men who assaulted her,” Krakauer says, “didn’t just steal her innocence; they poisoned her understanding of who she was. They transformed her into a kind of ghost, trapped forever in the act of being violated.”

Krakauer connected what he learned about her trauma to what he had observed with soldiers who served in Afghanistan. A therapist told him that rape survivors suffer many of the same “the same symptoms and behaviors as survivors of combat: flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, hypervigilance, depression, isolation, suicidal thoughts, outbursts of anger, unrelenting anxiety and an inability to shake the feeling that the world is spinning out of control” (p 349). “After Laura told me about what she’d endured, I was angry with myself for being so uniformed–not only about her ordeal but about non-stranger rape in general.” And so Krakauer set out to inform himself, and that led to his writing the book.

Krakauer emphasizes that while Missoula found its way into the national news because of a series of rapes a few years ago, the city and the university are in no way unusual: the incidence of rape in Missoula and at the University of Montana are somewhat below the (very shaky) data we have about the incidence of rape inflicted among college-age women. Threaded through Krakauer’s narratives about specific rape cases are some more general understandings of acquaintance or non-stranger rape. He is especially eager to lay to rest a number of myths about such rape cases: that false accusations of rape are common, for example, or that a woman who has not screamed or fought aggressively against her assailant couldn’t have been raped, or that a woman who expresses any degree of uncertainty or self doubt after the encounter must somehow have been complicit.

The cases in Missoula that Krakauer focuses upon were all cases in which the woman felt a degree of comfort, even closeness with the man. Nearly all involve alcohol, and I wish Krakauer had said more about that. Most of the men are athletes–football players for UM’s Grizzlies.  When the rape accusations become public, because these players are local heroes, the women are invariably subjected to public scorn and humiliation.  (In passing Krakauer notes that the players’ every move on the field of play is subjected by coaches to minute analysis and criticism, but hardly any guidance is given to their conduct off the field.)  And in nearly every case the men appear clueless about why what they did was wrong. Somehow, all evidence to the contrary, they felt they had consent or permission.

In each case, Krakauer recounts how the university, on the one hand, and the local criminal justice system, on the other, handled the accusation. In each setting there are people who come off better than others in how they handled the cases. Overall the impression is one of justice systems unprepared for the demands of rape cases, and lost in some of the myths about rape. I was especially struck that Krakauer makes no explicit judgments about any of these officials (he lets you draw your own conclusions), but he does argue that the adversarial nature of the criminal justice system is a nearly perfect way to re-create the trauma of a rape survivor.

I was especially impressed at Krakauer’s clarity about the respective roles of the university on the one hand and the police and criminal courts on the other. For the university, the issue is whether the men will be found responsible and as a consequence expelled from the university. The appropriate standard is “preponderance of the evidence” or “more likely than not.” That’s the standard now required of colleges and universities under Title IX.

In the criminal justice system, the punishment can be much more severe: extended incarceration and labeling for life as a sex offender.  There the appropriate standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” At several points in the narrative, attorneys for the accused press the university to use the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in university disciplinary hearings. Krakauer does as good a job as I’ve seen to make clear why different standards of evidence should pertain in the two settings.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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