6 of the Most Important Revelations From Jon Krakauer’s Missoula

Once upon a time, society taught women that men were dangerous. Then, starting in the second half of the twentieth century, we taught girls that they were the equal of boys. But what did we teach boys?

Jon Krakauer’s new book, Missoula: Rape And The Justice System In A College Town, is an absorbing, sobering look at sexual assault in America. In story after story, a woman thinks she can trust a man—enough to get drunk with or near him, to share a bed with him, or even just a house—and is punished for it.

As fans of Krakauer know, when he takes on a subject, he researches it intensely, examining it thoughtfully from every angle. Missoula is no different, and it’s full of revelations—some surprising, many frustrating, and almost all troubling. We’ve gathered six of the most important.

Police and prosecutors decide which cases go forward, not victims.
As Krakauer points out:

News media often … [report] that a victim “declined to press charges.” In fact, the criminal justice system gives victims no direct say in the matter. It’s the police, for the most part, who decide whether a suspect should be arrested, and prosecutors who ultimately determine whether a conviction should be pursued.

Police and prosecutors rely on their own discretion. A victim cannot “appeal” if her case is viewed to be without merit—or without enough proof to all but guarantee a conviction—and then she is denied even a shot at justice. This is part of the reason why, as Krakauer puts it, “more than 90% of the time the rapist gets away with the crime.” To the credit of the police force in Missoula, and thanks in part to action by the federal Department of Justice, in that town there is “a new policy requiring cops to begin sexual-assault investigations by believing the claims of victims.” The police now have a responsibility to, in Krakauer’s words, “trust, but verify.”

We don’t understand who rapists are.
In the popular imagination, rapists are strangers who attack you in shadowy corners. In actual fact, however, perpetrators are almost never strangers. They are friends in whose house we think we are safe; athletes we cheer for on the field. A person we think of as an equal and whom we assume accords us the same respect.

Krakauer reports that the grim reality is that “85% of all rapes are in fact committed by assailants who are acquainted in some way with their victims.” As long as conventional wisdom still holds that a rapist is a violent stranger in a parking lot, it’s hard to grasp the fact that people who are ordinary, even “good,” can do terrible things, especially when intoxicated and enabled by what fed-up activists now call “rape culture.”

Similarly, we don’t understand how people who’ve been raped act.
Women being assaulted, especially by acquaintances or friends, often find themselves paralyzed. As one expert puts it, “‘Most women who are sexually assaulted do not resist. The fear is overwhelming. They often feel helpless. Sometimes they make a conscious choice not to resist because they are afraid if they resist, they will be hurt even worse.'”

Many women in this position blame themselves because that gives them an illusion of control. They would rather pretend they did something wrong than acknowledge the world is as scary as it becomes when someone betrays their trust.

Likewise, women are socialized to be conciliatory and pleasing. As one prosecutor tells Krakauer, “‘We are brought up to be nice. Women are supposed to resolve problems without making a scene—to make bad things go away as if they never happened.'” Rapists often take advantage of the feminine impulse not to be confrontational. So, unfortunately, do courts.

Colleges and universities are “obligated by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to protect students from sexual harassment and sexual violence,” but often they are under-equipped to carry out their obligation.
Sometimes universities are able to meet this grave responsibility. Sometimes they have divided loyalties. Other times, even when they try to do the right thing, they are overruled, as in the case of a UM quarterback who was expelled after being accused of rape, then reinstated after the Montana commissioner got involved.

Universities are not, after all, set up to run tribunals that sort their own students into survivors and criminals. To its credit, the University of Montana seems to do a capable job of trying cases and holding assailants accountable. But that’s a lot of responsibility to foist on an academic institution, especially when the police do not work in concert with it and, on occasion, directly oppose it.

Meanwhile, state schools are no worse than private ones. Krakauer makes it clear that “some of the country’s most esteemed universities (Harvard being a prime example) have the most dysfunctional, poorly conceived sexual-assault policies.”

Our criminal justice system needs reform.
“Seemingly by design, the American legal system encourages defense counsel to be as mendacious as possible,” writes Krakauer. In other words, it is often in the best interest of trial lawyers to lie. While witnesses who testify on the stand take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, attorneys are under no such obligation. Indeed, they’re often rewarded for brash techniques including “wildly exaggerated claims, highly selective presentation of facts, and brutal interrogation of witnesses.”

This can be particularly damning when a person who has been raped goes to trial. Her body, her past, and her truthfulness all come under scrutiny, as much as or more than those of her accused assailant. Women are often encouraged to find other survivors, because there’s power in numbers. A single accuser might be dismissed; once she bands together with another accuser, her story begins to seem more credible. But women should not need to engage in the equivalent of class-action lawsuits in order to be taken seriously.

Alcohol costars in virtually every assault in Missoula.
In court, Beau Donaldson’s father blames alcohol for his son’s mistake: “‘Alcohol. That’s when we hate each other, when we drink.'” At Donaldson’s sentencing hearing, his lawyer insists that “were it not for alcohol, this young man wouldn’t be in prison.” Frat boy “Frank” makes it clear that encouraging binge drinking is one of the ways he incapacitates his victims.

If we urge female undergrads specifically to stop drinking, though, as some cultural commentators have suggested, we make it seem as though they’re to blame for men’s attacks. Should we teach young women, once again, to be wary of men, even the ones they think of as friends, though it’s a tiny percentage of men who commit a preponderance of these crimes? Should we teach young men what rape really is, so they understand the consequences of one act of violence can be life-changing for everyone involved?

Perhaps the answer is to make Missoula required reading for all incoming freshmen. Treat them like the adults they’re trying to be, and let them draw their own conclusions.

More by Jon Krakauer >

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