Jon Krakauer is a powerful ally in the battle against sexual violence
by Elizabeth Renzetti, The Globe and Mail, Apr. 24 2015
By his own admission, Jon Krakauer did not know much about sexual violence, and did not take it very seriously as an issue, before he decided to write a book about it.
This may cause your eyes to roll, if you’ve spent any time reading about the prevalence of rape or listening to women whose lives it has shattered. It certainly made mine roll.
Rolling Stone magazine failed to follow basic journalistic safeguards in publishing a story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house, according to an outside review of the matter released on Sunday. Zach Goelman reports.
But I’m willing to forgive his late conversion to the cause, because he is one powerful ally, and his new book about rape on a U.S. college campus, Missoula, is heavy artillery armed with facts, evidence and lacerating indignation.
The conversation has recently been hijacked by the bogus campus rape story in Rolling Stone magazine, but Mr. Krakauer shows, through interviews, transcripts and studies, that the problem is not that men are being falsely accused of rape, but that they are getting away with it. Here is one key takeaway from his book, which is as relevant to Canada as it is to the bucolic campus in Missoula, Mont.: “The overwhelming majority of rapists get away scot-free.”
Over the phone from New York, Mr. Krakauer elaborates: “The really good research shows that between 2 per cent and 10 per cent of charges are false. And that’s terrible. But 97 per cent of the time a woman is raped, the rapist escapes accountability and that is very disturbing. So many more women are victims of rape than men are falsely accused. It’s not even close.”
If you’d told him this five years ago, he might have scoffed. But that was before a close family friend, a woman he’d known since she was a baby, told him she’d been sexually assaulted and how it traumatized her. Mr. Krakauer, the bestselling author of extreme-adventure tales Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, was casting about for a topic for his next book and decided to investigate the subject of sexual assault – particularly on campus.
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One of the creepiest things about the book is that he could have chosen from a number of universities where elite athletes were accused of sexual misconduct, Florida State and Notre Dame among them. He decided instead to focus on the University of Montana, where the Grizzlies football team was the centre of an adoring “Griz Nation” – and the subject of several rape accusations.
The number of accusations, and the fumbled prosecutions that followed, earned Missoula the title of America’s “rape capital” after a story that appeared on the website Jezebel. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into police and prosecutors’ handling of allegations – or mishandling of them, in many cases. Victims weren’t believed. Accused were given special treatment because they were football players. Prosecutors failed to prosecute.
And most of the assaults went unpunished. As in many rape cases, it was the victim’s word against the accused’s. The girls and boys usually were at least acquaintances, and sometimes friends, when the assaults happened. Juries were flummoxed by the fact that a young woman might invite a young man to her room, then not want to have sex with him.
The young women often had no advocates beyond themselves and their families. Prosecutors were more afraid of the harm to the young men than the women they’d assaulted: “When we file sex charges against someone, it’s going to ruin their life,” the deputy county attorney told the local paper. That woman, Kirsten Pabst, is now the Missoula County attorney; she tried to delay the publication of Mr. Krakauer’s book.
Possibly the most fascinating (if disturbing) aspect of Missoula is the way the accused young men fail to recognize they’ve done anything wrong, and that their actions have devastating consequences. As Mr. Krakauer says, “they think rapists are people who jump out from behind bushes.
“They think, ‘I’m this star athlete, women throw themselves at me, how dare you tell me you don’t want to do it tonight?’ … It’s not just athletes. Men feel entitled to women’s bodies. It’s a really horrible thing.”
At this point in our conversation, Mr. Krakauer apologizes for “ranting.” He’s afflicted with the zeal of the newly converted.
“I feel true shame for my ignorance,” he says, but in a way that makes him the perfect stand-in for the reader. He wants the public to know the damage that follows rape victims their whole lives, and how, in their post-traumatic stress, they resemble army veterans he’s written about. He’s worried that the debunked Rolling Stone story about gang rape on campus will shift the public discourse and make the climate even more hostile to women who might have spoken up. He is disconsolate about the adversarial nature of the criminal justice system.
Yet, because he’s Jon Krakauer and a brand name, and his book has a print run of 500,000, his words just might make a difference. (One assault victim’s friend agreed to speak to him because “we had to read your stupid book in high school.”) It will annoy many people that it took a well-known man to lend this issue credibility, but I don’t really care. In the battle for change, you take your allies where you find them.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
by Jon Krakauer, DoubleDay 2015
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