By Kay Whitlock
In some cases, serious community rifts opened, centered on contested ideas of innocence, guilt, consent, and morality. At the heart of these divisions was the belief that the accused were not criminal types, so the immorality must be located entirely in the young women.
—from a discussion of cultures of sexual violence in U.S. cities in Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics
The firestorm of anxiety and local attempts to discredit Jon Krakauer and his new book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town provide a mirror image of the volatile, polarizing controversies that exploded when residents of this Montana community first became publicly aware of events detailed in the book.
As a longtime Missoula resident, I’ve paid close attention.
Krakauer’s book focuses on the experiences of several Missoula women who reported being sexually assaulted or raped by acquaintances who were university students. Alleged assailants included members of the University of Montana’s beloved Grizzlies (“The Griz”) football team. He places the women’s voices at the center of the narrative. His account draws extensively from transcripts and other documents that provide damning detail of university and law enforcement authorities’ reluctant, inconsistent, and severely flawed responses to those women.
Prior to its publication, many residents who had not read a single page denounced the book and the author, declaring that Missoula’s good reputation was being unfairly tarnished. An attorney who successfully defended a popular UM quarterback against rape charges—Krakauer describes the case in excruciating detail—aggressively sought to discredit the author. Missoula’s recently-elected county attorney, deeply implicated in the events described in the book, joined in public denunciation prior to the book’s release and confirmed efforts to delay publication.
But as soon as the book was published, she staged a press event where she read a lengthy statement praising herself and others for enacting reforms but refused to take questions. She downplayed the critical role of the U.S. Department of Justice’s review of the handling of sexual assault allegations by university and law enforcement officials in ensuring the enactment of significant investigatory reforms. Without actually naming him or his book, the new county attorney further damned Krakauer before she grudgingly acknowledged the importance of the book’s subject.
Any time an individual or a group—a family, an institution, a community, a nation—responds so reflexively to painful (but verifiable) disclosure of the adverse effects of one’s own actions with furious denials, attempts to discredit the messengers, and assertions that everything's fine now—we’d better pay close attention. Because we are in murky, deeply troubled territory where nothing is fine.
Sociologist Everett C. Hughes explores this terrain in his classic 1962 essay “Good People and Dirty Work,” which focuses on the mechanisms by which individuals and societies keep “unpleasant or intolerable knowledge from consciousness.” These strategies of distancing and denial, Hughes points out, function to uphold fictions that reinforce a belief in one’s own virtuous self-image and good reputation. In order to do this, individuals and society establish clear psychic, cultural, and legal strategies that demarcate the presumably good and virtuous us from the dangerous and untrustworthy (and criminal) them.
These boundaries are simplistic and false. Yet people cling tenaciously to the fictions that support them. Not everyone commits overt acts of violence, but many of us rationalize, minimize the impacts of, excuse, or deny violence when to do otherwise would shatter our fictions.
This is so with regard to rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment and coercion in the United States. Michael Bronski and I point out in our book Considering Hate that violence is theoretically subject to criminal legal prosecution, but while this avenue is seldom (and selectively) pursued, its existence props up the idea that good people don’t tolerate sexual violence. In the public imagination, the rape story “becomes an idealized tale of public virtue and individualized evil.”
This idealized concept of justice coexists with a culture in which sexual harassment, coercion, and violence are widespread and respectable people are responsible for most of it.
Missoula’s defense of its fictions began a few years ago, when the painful and unsettling allegations and reports of institutional responses to them emerged. Gwen Florio, novelist and journalism instructor, then writing about cops and crime for the local newspaper, was the first to dig into the story. (She recently described Krakauer’s book as “accurate.”) The events occurred primarily between 2010 and 2014, at a time when the investigatory policies and practices of an increasing number of colleges and universities were under scrutiny.
The continuing fallout has been marked by disparate attempts to discourage serious public discussion of the prevalence of sexual violence and, failing that, to fix and limit responsibility. It has been characterized by varied attempts to place the blame for the furor on someone else, anyone else—usually the U.S. Department of Justice and women making the allegations.
Even many officials and community residents who sincerely care about reducing sexual violence rushed to institute quick fixes to a problem that no one wants to acknowledge in its complex entirety.
The University of Montana hired a former Montana Supreme Court justice to conduct an independent review of sexual assault reports and fired the football coach and athletic director. The popular starting quarterback was expelled from school, then reinstated, and ultimately acquitted in a criminal trial.
When the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into how the university and campus police and city/county law enforcement officials addressed sexual assault allegations, the county attorney refused to cooperate and initially sued to stop the investigation. (He has since retired and been replaced; before he left office, he dismissed the lawsuit.) The former police chief also decried the DOJ as overreach and “severe bullying,” portraying local law enforcement officials as the real victims. Other city and university officials hastened to cooperate with the federal agency.
For many members of the Missoula community, it was unthinkable that members of the popular Griz football team should have to answer charges. After all, “boys will be boys,” and popular young men who bring in victory, revenue, and enjoyment aren’t criminal types. Drunken young women but not drunken young men are responsible for whatever happens. Well-heeled and well-connected alums and fans work to make sure that is understood.
In the end, the maelstrom of bad publicity, combined with the DOJ investigation, produced policy clarifications and some reforms. Advocates launched a new public acquaintance rape awareness campaign.
Then Jon Krakauer’s book was announced.
Despite legal and procedural reforms, Missoula remains in murky territory where people on all sides of the issue cling to the fiction that society can somehow expel, arrest, prosecute, imprison, and censor its way into a less sexually violent future.
This is delusional. The problem of sexual coercion and violence is embedded in the images and storylines of mass media, popular culture, and individual and group beliefs and practices. It has a long and terrible racist history and serves to reinforce race, gender, and economic power differentials.
It is present in many different faith communities and pervasive in U.S. jails, prisons, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile correctional facilities, where correctional employees perpetrate most of the sexual violence. It is a common feature of U.S. policing —especially the policing of communities of color, poor people, and transgender women—and military service. Sexualized torture and humiliation permeate the U.S. “war on terror.” Sexual harassment and assault are common features on campuses and in many workplaces.
We need new visions and practices of justice expansive enough to help us discard our comforting fictions, face reality, and take up collective responsibility for what happens next.
About the Author
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is the coauthor of the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Considering Hate, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.