Beyond Missoula: A Challenge to Feminists and to Jon Krakauer

Acquaintance rape, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s newest book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, is a topic feminists have been writing about for decades with barely a head nod from the mainstream media. Now Krakauer’s book is being hailed as “fascinating,” “excellent,” and “a passionate, maddening jeremiad.”

How should feminists feel about that? Understandably pissed off that it takes “a mansplainer’s guide to rape-is-bad,” as Jessica Valenti put it, to get so much attention. But we should also be grateful, because Krakauer’s awakening has opened the eyes of his many admirers.

Make no mistake, what Krakauer experienced was an awakening. This best-selling author and extraordinary writer was in at least one respect quite ordinary: Like most American men, and many women, he gave no thought whatsoever to acquaintance rape. He was clueless about the trauma it inflicted, unfamiliar with the years of activism and scholarship surrounding the issue, unaware that it affected people he knew and cared about. Fortunately, he’s not proud of that fact. “My ignorance was inexcusable,” he writes in Missoula, “and it made me ashamed.”

So while his is not the first or most comprehensive writing on the subject, Krakauer has put his name and reputation to good service: readers who’ve followed his other bestsellers and trust his reporting and who would never have picked up a book about date rape are reading Missoula.

Here’s what they’re learning from this compelling account: Acquaintance rape is commonplace, deeply injurious, vastly misunderstood—including by those who experience, investigate and prosecute it—and often perpetrated in serial fashion by men whose crimes remain undetected, even to themselves. The targets of their behavior include men, but are overwhelmingly women.

These lessons emerge as Krakauer shares detailed stories about a number of rapes on the University of Montana campus. He began his inquiry after a 2013 Justice Department investigation found serious problems in the way the police force had handled such cases. Krakauer relies on interviews and courtroom transcripts and the writings of experts, enriching his book with quotes such as this one from Valenti: “Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.”

One of the experts the author introduces readers to is Dr. David Lisak, a clinical psychologist whose methodologically rigorous research debunked the myth that most accusations of acquaintance rape are false. Typically rapes are unreported and unpunished; 90 percent of time, the rapist gets away with the crime.

Dr. Lisak also helped explain the sometimes-confusing behavior of rape survivors: Self-blame “feels better” than living in fear.

If the victim decides to press charges, she’s at the mercy of people typically untrained in the brain and social science research laid out by Dr. Lisak. Assumptions that women are lying or disturbed aren’t the only problem. Krakauer points out that our society has encouraged men to feel entitled to sex. The problem is exacerbated when the accused is a football player or other athlete adored by fans and empowered by a hero culture. Those in a position to evaluate the situation often point to the harm caused to the reputation of the accused—oblivious to the harm to the victim. As one woman in Krakauer’s book put it, “I don’t get to go to a review board and ask them to reduce the pain I feel daily; or take away the flashbacks, nightmares, or anxiety; or restore my sense of safety and security, or my trust in people.”

Most chilling is the fact that the rapists Krakauer describes, for the most part, do not see that they have done anything wrong. The author puts that in context by sharing Lisak’s study on “undetected rapists.” Lisak and other researchers surveyed a random sample of 1,882 men who were students at U Mass Boston in the 1990s. All participated voluntarily; the researchers never used the word “rape.” Instead they asked objective questions such as: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated … to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?” The researchers conducted follow-up interviews with those who answered “yes.”

In all, 120, or 6.4 percent, of the subjects, were identified as rapists. Nearly two-thirds of those were repeat offenders; together they were responsible for at least 439 rapes. Most participants regarded themselves as nice guys.

All this insight and more is packed into Missoula. What moved Krakauer to write the book was learning that someone he and his wife knew well had been raped by an acquaintance as a teen and again a few years later by a family friend. The more he read and talked about the subject, the more Krakauer was “stunned” to discover others among his family and friends had been subjected to this crime. He wants Missoula to help change this reality.

Books are important. So are the reforms Krakauer calls for—better training for those who handle complaints and investigate and prosecute these cases, more support for survivors to speak out and heal. But what wins those changes is the activism feminists have been waging for a very long time, spearheaded today by groups like Know Your IX, a Long Walk Home, Hollaback, and many others. This is one area Krakauer largely overlooks.

Most of these groups run on a shoestring budget. Financial support from Krakauer and calls for others to do the same would be a great addendum to his book.


Ellen Bravo is strategic consultant to Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid sick and safe days, family and medical leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.