We’re Not Missoula: We’re Worse

Last April, acclaimed non-fiction writer Jon Krakauer released his book “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” to great controversy. The book aims to look into the prevalence of acquaintance rape and the serious issues surrounding how the justice system handles it. The problem isn’t the content of the work itself, or even the notoriously biased voice Krakauer writes with, but using “Missoula” as the title, as if Missoula itself were the problem.

The book is an in-depth case study that does, yes, use Missoula as its example of something that happens all over America. But the title undermines the thesis of the book, keeping the idea that “this is something that happens in Missoula” in people’s minds, when they should be thinking “this is something that happens everywhere.”

It’s likely that Krakauer was channeling “The Laramie Project” when titling his book, a play also that uses a town as an example to point out something that is a problem everywhere. Whereas “The Laramie Project” uses the exceptional circumstances of Matt Shepard being beaten and left for dead for being a homosexual as an example in order to bring out the inadequacy of hate crime laws, “Missoula” talks about the infamous sexual assault cases that took place in the town, which are not exceptional, but happen every day all across this country.

These issues have been back in the news lately, with UM’s student newspaper, The Montana Kaimin, publishing a staff editorial on Oct. 14, telling the administration that they need to admit the dropping enrollment is due to the rape scandals from the previous years. The issue gets messy because, yes, the enrollment drop could be correlated with the scandals, but UM is not worse than most other schools when it comes to amount of sexual assaults and how the school handles them, especially now. In fact, Krakauer himself writes in the end of the first chapter that “the number of sexual assaults in Missoula might sound alarming, but if FBI figures are accurate, it’s actually commonplace.”

The number of reported sexual assaults at UM has stayed around 14 per year on their main campus since the scandals began, while at MSU the amount reported increased from four in 2012, to 21 in 2014. The increase in reported sexual assaults is actually a good thing, paradoxically, as Shantalle Gaynor was quoted in an article for “Outside Magazine” saying, “When you see increased reporting, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s an increase of crime. It often means there’s an increase of trust.” 80 percent of sexual assaults actually go unreported, so this shows people’s confidence in the justice system to actually handle the cases. All of this makes gathering statistically excessively difficult, especially with no good statistic on how many college-aged women are sexually assaulted each year. In fact, the Department of Justice’s inquiries don’t account for sexual assaults that happened when victims were incapable of giving consent.

From the information that we do have, we see that the number of reported assaults increases at UM once the scandal started, and MSU soon follows. Based on student population and the number of reported assaults per year, and accounting for the 80 percent of assaults that go unreported, MSU still shows statistically more sexual assaults per student, meaning we have just as much, if not more, of a problem. Krakauer naming his book “Missoula” shifts the focus from the national sexual assault problem, and creates a bigger problem: it makes people subconsciously feel like this is a problem related to Missoula, and not everywhere in the nation. Even here at MSU, it allows us to understate the rape issue on our own campus by saying, “Well at least we’re not UM,” when we’re statistically doing worse, and we aren’t even talking about it. The most troubling thing is not often discussed: the fact that over 80 percent of sexual assaults are committed by non-strangers, and almost 50 percent are perpetrated by friends or acquaintances, so the way that society views a rapist–as a man in bush wearing a ski mask and brandishing a knife–is typically false, and the real problem is closer to home.

Sexual assault and how we handle it socially is a massive, complicated issue, and I’m not going to pretend to be smart enough to know the solution. All I can do is start a discussion so that together we can figure out how to fix this. Granted, that is what Krakauer tried to do with “Missoula.” I ask you not to think of sexual assaults as something that happen as isolated, far-off incidents, because it is something that happens everyday, everywhere.