Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

This book broke my review schedule. After finishing a book, I’d generally take a week at most to review it, writing my thoughts down while everything was still fresh and quickly moving onto the next book on the pile. But then I read Missoula and everything stopped. How exactly do I review this book? How do I talk about how much it meant to me, how it affected my worldview without devolving into a political discussion of rape, rape culture and the controversy surrounding those words?

Fact is, I can’t. I can’t just ignore Missoula simply because it’s difficult to talk about and will raise issues that I find to be incredibly personal and important. Because even though no one reads this blog and the odds that more than 3 people will see this are around 5%, I need to talk about Missoula and what it teaches, even if that means I will have to face victim-blaming opinions of people I know. And so, I need to issue a content warning for this review, because I’m going to talk in detail about the things that Missoula talks about and it isn’t nice. I’m not going to light-heartedly dance around saying that a woman was raped and how. What happened and continues to happen to women around the world is not a thing I’m going to sugarcoat for this review. Consider this your only warning.

Missoula, as the full title suggests, is Krakauer’s journalistic investigation into a series of rapes in Missoula, Montana, specifically ones linked to campus life at the University of Montana. We follow the stories of real women who attempted to come forward after being sexually assaulted or raped and how both the college system and the police reacted to their claims. We read about, in gruesome and painful detail, the rapes of 3 primary women and watch as all but one of them fail again and again to bring their rapists to justice. They are blamed for nearly every single thing leading up to their rape. Well, she invited him over to watch a movie (it doesn’t matter that she told him to stop and pushed against him so hard a bruise was left on her chest where he held her down). Well, she was drunk at a party (it doesn’t matter that 6 football players got her so incredibly wasted and drugged that she was passed out for the majority of her rape, waking up here and there to realize there were penises in her mouth). Well, she said previously “I’m yours anytime” (It doesn’t matter that that exchange was multiple nights previous and when she woke up after crashing at his place, she found herself stripped naked and him in the middle of penetrating her.)

The list just goes on and on. When first going to the police, a woman is asked multiple times if she has a boyfriend and if she was caught cheating (implying she made up the whole rape story because she was unfaithful and wanted to hide it). Women arrive to the police station with underwear soaked with blood, bruises on their bodies and tears in their vaginas and only one of their rapists were sentenced to any prison time. The one woman who was successful? She only was because her rapist confessed to the police that he raped her (a confession he’d later try to recant and spread lies around campus that she made the whole thing up, making her a local pariah).

These stories enraged me. But as Krakauer strives to convey throughout this book, Missoula, despite being named “the rape capital of the country” is not this special isolated case. Missoula’s sexual assault numbers are right around the national average. The rage I felt reading this book is rage knowing that this treatment of rape victims, the disbelief and victim blaming and slut shaming, is not a specific problem only affecting Montana.

Reading Missoula, I remembered the case of Steubenville, where 4 high school football players found a girl extremely drunk to the point of unconsciousness at a party and proceeded to strip her and finger her while she was unconscious, posting the entire thing to facebook and twitter like it was a joke. That happened in the state I live in and the story flew around my facebook feed. I remember seeing people I considered friends commenting on how she shouldn’t have gotten so drunk. Where were her parents teaching her how to behave? What was she wearing? People I knew were suddenly regretfully bemoaning how she was ruining these boys lives. The lack of empathy for her was astonishing (“Hey! Responsibility is a two way street! She also bore responsibility to not get so wasted that she couldn’t stop them from doing these things!”). She was unconscious and violated without any form of consent and it was posted all on the internet, but it’s her fault this happened.

Rape culture is not a mythical boogey man word made up by the Evil Feminists out to destroy the manliness of America. Rape culture is having a family member tell me that they hope I would be smart enough not to allow myself into an abusive relationship. Rape culture is having a coworker tell me that if I wear a skirt that is higher than knee length that I’m “giving men the wrong idea.” Rape culture is logging onto facebook and seeing people I went to school with complaining about how “sluts just make up rape allegations to castrate men.” It’s knowing that if you ever find yourself in the horrible situation of being raped, it most likely will be by someone you know, and that you are expected to have followed these “rules” in order to have a chance of being believed:

  1. Do not drink any alcohol in a party setting because even if you only had 2 beers, it’ll be used as evidence that you are a woman of loose morals
  2. Do not dress in any sort of sexually appealing way. How on earth are men expected to not behave like animals and take advantage of you?
  3. Do not express any interest in a man because if you do, even if it was months ago, that’ll be used as permission you’ve given him to violate you. I mean, if you were interested in him at some point, you must have secretly wanted the sex and ergo it isn’t rape.
  4. Do not engage in kissing or any sort of foreplay unless you also want intercourse. Wanted to just make out and cuddle while watching Netflix? Too bad, that desire means that you also are giving permission for him to stick his penis in you. Hey, you liked him enough to kiss him, clearly that means you’re okay with sex!
  5. If you are being raped, make sure you stay awake throughout all of it. If you don’t remember the rape, how can it really be rape? Doesn’t matter if you wake up with your vagina bleeding and bruises on you, you don’t remember being raped so how do you know that you actually were?
  6. If you are being raped and awake, make sure you’re fighting back to the utmost extent you can possibly muster. It doesn’t matter if you’re fearing for your safety or in such a state of shock that you can’t react. If you don’t completely fight back, you must have wanted it.
  7. If you are a man and find yourself getting raped, tough for you. Men don’t get raped! You’re so silly. You must be gay and trying to hide it. Wait, you’re a man and claiming you were raped by a woman? That biologically is impossible! Men cannot ever NOT want sex!! There’s no way a stupid woman could have forced you into having sex, you are such a pussy.

Missoula is an extremely important book. I honestly wish everyone could read it. My hope would be that reading these stories and seeing the facts that Krakauer presents that we could slowly start to undo the culture of disbelief and victim blaming we’ve developed around victims of sexual assault. But even thinking back to the people in my life I referenced earlier, the family member, the facebook friend, the person in my workplace, I know in my head that reading this book would not change their viewpoints. The statistics and facts, all thoroughly researched and well cited, would be dismissed as biased propaganda. The women are either liars or also partially to blame for their assault.

Missoula does not offer much in the way of positive hope for the future. These systems of questioning the validity of women and blaming them for their assault is so ingrained in our society by now that there’s not much any one person can do. But hopefully if more and more people start becoming aware of how we as a society treat victims of rape and assault and start questioning why we are so quick to blame the woman for her pain, maybe eventually books like Missoula won’t need to be written.