Friday, February 19, 2016

The Secret Scourge

"Missoula – Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” by Jon Krakauer, 2016

This book is a reportorial story that fleshes out a series of ominous statistics about rape in the U.S., and specifically rape in college towns with revered football teams.  In the process it paints a picture of what could be happening nationwide. 


Here are the numbers from Krakauer’s book:   1,750 > 350 > 114 > 14 > 13 > 9.

1,750 is the estimate of total rapes in Missoula County in a 5 year period, based on studies showing that 80% of rapes are not reported.  350 is the number reported to the Missoula police in the 5 year period 2008-2012.  114 are the number of rapes investigated by Missoula police detectives during that period and referred for prosecution based on significant evidence.  The rest of the investigations were dropped by detectives.  14 is the number of rapes Missoula county district attorneys actually prosecuted during that time. A bit less than 13 is the number of convictions at trial or plea bargaining, based on Missoula’s 90% conviction rate.  9 of these people is the number that probably did jail time, based on Missoula County’s jail-time rates from 1/2001-3/2012.  The rest would have gotten probation. 

Elsewhere Krakauer points out that based on national statistics 90% of rapists get away with rape.  In Missoula the numbers look even larger.    The police and prosecutors in Missoula were adamant that 50% of all rape allegations are fraudulent.  Experts outside of Missoula that have studied rape report that between 2 & 10% of allegations are false.  The vast majority of rapes – 85% - take place by acquaintances or ‘friends,’ not through ‘stranger danger.’  Most rapists go on to do it again between 6-8 times, so serial rape is the most common issue.  One study put this number at 63% of rapists.  Sexual and physical abuse of children and battery against intimates are also common among this group, raising the rate in this particular study to 14 for each offender. 

Bucolic Missoula Montana

Missoula is a ‘liberal’ college town full of football fans, in the middle of rural Montana.  It is politically controlled by the Democratic Party.  The University of Montana Grizzlies are the beloved team, able to fill a fancy 25,000 seat stadium every game, winning many titles.  Now it should not surprise anyone that some drunken and beefy man-boys imbued with entitlement and a hazy idea of women should be prone to rape.  Indeed, college football towns have a higher than average level of overall crime committed by football players.  Adding this to the statistics on brain damage caused by football might be a sign that American football is a dinosaur.   But not yet in Missoula, where nearly everyone in this story was a sports or football coach on some level, a football fan, a patron or a player, or connected to the players through friendship.  A somewhat rotten web of connections.


Krakauer takes you through the various personal ordeals suffered by a group of young college-age females in Missoula who finally went public about their rapes.  One gets a plea-bargain conviction, then must contest a legal effort to reject it.  One trial is decided by a jury for the rapist after the promulgation of rape myths by the aggressive defense counsels.  An investigation into gang rape by football players is dropped by police.  One woman comes forward when a man who raped her was publicly charged by another woman – much as in the Cosby scenario.  And so on.

All show the overwhelming trauma to the young women – depression, anxiety, poor school performance, withdrawal, fear and isolation from the community of Missoula.   Krakauer shows how rape was unevenly handled by University administrators and lawyers, though better than the legal system.  At this time journalists at the local paper and the Justice Department were looking into how Missoula authorities handled rape. 


Krakauer spends time on various myths about rape that are not born out by those who have been raped or studies of rape, but pushed by right-wingers and defense attorneys. 
  1. ‘Women can always scream or fight.’  Actually, many young women become paralyzed with fear.  Having a 200+ pound person on top of you, holding you down can do that.  Drinking also has a role in impeding responses.
  2. “The reaction should be immediate.”  Actually, many victims try to maintain a sense of normality in the immediate aftermath, to pretend that it did not happen. A deep sense of shame or shock is part of this.
  3. “Drunk girls deserve it.”  Actually, drunks cannot give consent.
  4. “Most girls lie for various reasons.”  Actually, guidelines by the Chiefs of Police in the U.S. indicate that the victim should be believed until proved otherwise, just as victims of burglary or assault should be believed.
  5. “The physical injuries were self-inflicted” or “The woman was always a head case.”  Actually, physical and emotional damage that is visible immediately after a rape should be almost conclusive proof that rape occurred.
  6. “Sluts deserve it.”  Actually, this idea, common to orthodox Catholics, Muslims and Christian fundamentalists, is imbued with punitive moralism and sexual repression and has no relation to an act of violence.
  7. “You have to feel sorry for the poor boys.”  Actually, plain male chauvinism.


In the process of telling the story, Krakauer digs into the legal issues behind rape prosecutions.  He notes that 1972’s Title IX law gave women the right to have equal sports opportunities in college, but it also requires that colleges protect women from sexual assault.  Krakauer takes a swing at the U.S. system based only on winning or losing cases.  He points out that ‘truth’ is not the point of the system and this is understood by attorneys on both sides.  He shows how the defense attorneys who regularly defend against rape have no sanctions against them if they breach ethics or lie or misrepresent, but public prosecutors do.  Krakauer’s specific examples in Missoula show the crude bullying tactics of defense counsels. 


So you’d think if there were only more female cops or female prosecutors or female DA’s then this problem would solve itself? Actually not.  What is striking about this story is that females played some of the worst roles – as University deans, as Missoula detectives, as prosecutors and later as defense counsel. 

One woman, Kirsten Pabst, is actually the chief villain here. Pabst was a single mother that became a paralegal, then got a JD and became a Missoula detective, then head of the sex crimes unit, then quit to become a defense counsel for a football player accused of rape, then ultimately ran to be Missoula County DA and won as a Democrat.  She is still in this position today – supposedly abiding by Department of Justice rules on how the Missoula authorities should change their methods.  Unfortunately, she was head prosecutor of the sexual crimes unit at the Missoula DA’s office during the period in which the Justice Department noted Missoula’s failure to protect 50% of its population from rape.   Those numbers I started with … 14 prosecutions?  That was her.  So the ‘fox’ is in charge again, voted in by the chickens. 


I had a conversation with a Hungarian woman friend who lived for many years in Hungary’s largest city, Budapest, when Hungary was a bureaucratized workers’ state.  Even in this patriarchal culture, she never heard of a rape, even as a college-age woman, nor read about it in the news.  Now there may be another explanation for this, like shame, but I think it indicates something, perhaps a greater imbalance between the sexes due to financial power.  She said violence in Hungary between men and women was more about husbands beating wives. She said that alcohol was as present as it is in the U.S., so the 'drinking' excuse doesn't work either.  But men did not attempt to get women drunk or spike their drinks. (This is a correction from an earlier version.)  From my scan of the book “Soviet Women,” about feminism in the last days of the USSR, it does not even mention rape. 

Anecdotes like this hint that something about life under U.S. capital makes rape more likely.  Certainly the crude form of warlike imperialism in the U.S. provides the proper atmosphere.  In the U.S. chauvinist entities like the Catholic Church, some religious cults, some 40 universities and the U.S. military are notorious for their rape climates.  Clearly, women are still second-class citizens in the U.S. and the rape issue is traumatic evidence of that.  Every college freshman girl should read this book.

Other books related to this issue:  Gone Girl,” “Soviet Women,” reviewed below. Another book by Krakauer reviewed below: "Into the Wild."

Red Frog
February 19, 2016

1 comment:

Leah Honsky said...

Thank you for featuring this book, as difficult as it was to read at times I am very glad this account was written. A very thought provoking case study.