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Spring 2024 Reading Recommendation


Jon Krakauer's Missoula examines several cases of campus rape between 2010 and 2012, and the systems that failed to support survivors.


Why do so many rapes go unreported? Of those that are reported, why are so few prosecuted? How common is acquaintance assault, and why is it so difficult to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes against people they know? What constitutes justice for survivors?


These questions are as relevant today as they were when Jon Krakauer's Missoula was published this month nine years ago. Examining several cases of acquaintance rape at the University of Montana between 2010 and 2012, Krakauer confronts some of the prevailing misconceptions about sexual assault that led to several cases in Missoula being minimized, if not outright mishandled. It's sobering to admit, but it's a book that could've been written yesterday and about any number of communities.


Missoula in 2012 was not a place with an outsized number of reported rapes. In fact, its rate was slightly less than the average for a town of its size (a point Krakauer emphasizes in the book and still reiterates in interviews). Missoula was, however, the subject of a 2012 U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the university, police department, and county attorney’s office. What the DOJ found was staggering: Of 350 sexual assaults reported between January 2008 and May 2012, less than a third (114) were referred to the county attorney’s office, and prosecutors filed charges in only 14 cases.


In the wake of the DOJ finding that 96% of all assaults reported in Missoula County went unprosecuted, Krakauer took a closer look at several cases that garnered some of the most public attention. One of the throughlines these higher-profile assaults shared is well-known now: Among the accused were several members of the university's venerated football team. In these interconnected cases, misconceptions about the frequency of false reports, victim-blaming from both the public and authorities, failure to recognize consent as something that can be withdrawn, and prosecutors more concerned with winning cases than upholding justice all fueled a climate where college survivors felt a police report promised little recourse. Those who did make reports were disbelieved and derided publicly, adding to the trauma of the original assault.


In every case Krakauer examines closely, the victims and alleged perpetrators knew each other—a detail that cuts to the core of a deeply entrenched assumption that sexual assault is mostly committed by strangers. This false notion, widely held by jurors and even perpetuated by some detectives and attorneys at the time, is one of many that hampered investigation and prosecution in the Missoula cases. Of all the cases the book recounts, a 2010 rape was the only instance where one of the athletes accused was convicted. The survivor and perpetrator had been close friends since first grade.


Along with the federal investigation, local press coverage (most notably by former Missoulian reporter and editor Gwen Florio) brought attention and, eventually, reforms to the way these violent crimes were investigated and prosecuted in Missoula County. If you're interested in learning how communities can better support victims of assault, hold our systems of justice more accountable, and dismantle the fallacies that still predominate discussions of sexual assault, Missoula is an instructive read.


One of the most important takeaways is that willful denial of the seriousness and prevalence of sexual assault serves no one, least of all survivors. The tiresome refrain of "that doesn't happen here" (something we hear in our own community) is statistically improbable. What’s more, it can put people in harm's way—a point best illustrated by some of the more chilling studies Krakauer cites in Missoula about college rapes in particular. In a 2011 issue of the periodical Sexual Assault Report, clinical psychologist David Lisak shared research finding that as much as 90% of college rapes are committed by serial offenders, some of whom might commit as many as six rapes.


What would it take to forestall would-be serial offenders after the first time? It’s a weighty question with many answers, but an important place to start is believing survivors—especially survivors on college campuses—when they disclose that they've experienced sexual violence. The probability of rape perpetrators reoffending coupled with the following facts demonstrates why this is such a big deal:


At The Friendship Center, we understand that there are many reasons a survivor may never choose to make a report to law enforcement. In some cases, it can further inflame an already volatile situation. Our advocates support our clients no matter what, and never engage law enforcement without their explicit consent. However, those who do choose to report should be taken seriously. Nine years after its publication, and almost 15 years since the cases it chronicles, Missoula underscores how much is at stake when we maintain a culture that discourages disclosure and prosecution of violent crimes.


We are fortunate in our community to have a strong relationship with our partners in law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices. Their commitment to reducing barriers to reporting and improving prosecution rates and public safety is sincere—an important factor in supporting victims who choose to engage with the justice system. The average juror's level of knowledge about these crimes is also improving thanks in part to education programming provided by agencies like ours. Greater awareness about the nature of sexual assault and how these crimes are handled makes us all better prepared to hold perpetrators accountable, prevent future violence, and support survivors. Our communities deserve nothing less.


 

If you want to get your own copy of Missoula, you can support our local bookstore here in Helena by ordering your paperback or audiobook through Montana Book Company! If you're reading for a book club, email montanabookco@gmail.com to get 10% off your purchase. If you’re out in Townsend, you can support your local bookstore by ordering from Reading Leaves.


Missoula contains quotes from police reports, news stories, interviews, and court proceedings detailing real sexual assault cases. These include descriptions of the crimes as well as dismissive and disparaging comments directed at many of the victims. While it’s important to learn what survivors go through and where systems often fail to support them, we encourage everyone to read with care.

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