Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rape Culture: A Note On Jon Krakauer's Missoula


I'm 2/3ds through Missoula, by Jon Krakauer.

I'd make it required reading for people who thought as I did.

I took a highly skeptical view of rape culture.

I took too sanguine a view of the ambiguity inherent in drink fuelled hook ups, thinking rather abstractly that preponderant truth is by and large unattainable without smoking gun evidence and where the issue is he said, she said.

Otoh, I've always thought that universities, a big site for that kind of sex, are right to delegalize the adjudicative/investigative process concerning sexual assault and rape, nowadays a form of sexual assault. This is a theme in Missoula, the contrast between the criminal process and the university's delegalized, more streamlined process.

Much of the change in my thinking comes from the reported stories in Missoula, painstakingly researched and elaborately presented, and from the account of this football-addled small town's sensibility, and what privileged, elevated, cocooned, demiGod status star football players have.

I also didn't have anything approaching an experiential understanding of the trauma that can be suffered by victims of serious sexual assault. The reporting in the book gets me closer to that. 

On rape culture, I reject the abstraction that in North America we live in one, where sexual assault has been made normal and acceptable. But in pockets of society, say towns like Missoula, an archetypal college football town, there can be. A culture is, in one understanding, the mind of a group. And among the Missoula football players, there was an attitude of sex as a prerogative. Not the brutally explicit act of attacking women with weapons, brutalizing them and forcing them to have sex: this can't be the model for what constitutes serious sexual assault. No, rather, it includes taking nonconsensual liberties with a woman who may be drunk, may be high on drugs, may simply be fatigued, who may start in but then wants to stop, other things. 

The feeling of sexual entitlement by highly regarded, some iconically so, athletes  flows from all that adulation. It's a feeling that comes from thinking the ordinary rules can be flouted. Maybe this is one modality of power corrupting. And this culture is aided by lenient coaches, athletic establishments within the university, and even highly placed university personnel partly on the premise that "boys will be boys."

As this rape culture exists in this core pocket of Missoula, it's easy to imagine and understand that it exists in like towns and cities throughout North America, and that it exists in fraternities and in segments of student culture as well, where kids, away from home, away from parents, with freedom and money, drink and party as a rite of college passage.

The ambiguity of drink fuelled hook ups hasn't been obviated, but reading the minutely and elaborately reported accounts of concrete incidents makes it clear that the bottoms of some allegations can be gotten to, by way of first hand accounts, post incident conduct, what gets told to third parties, how and when, forensic evidence, other things. Ambiguity, differing accounts, a seemingly benign context--a party, a dance, friends hanging out, drunkenness or other highnesses a party, some sexual willingness, the accused being a generally good guy, and so on, pose investigative difficulties to be sure, sometimes insuperable, but not necessarily, as Krakauer makes convincingly clear.

A premise of criminal law is ten guilty go free rather than convict one innocent. That can't apply to universities. There, a chief responsibility of the administration is safety of its generally young charges. That means leaning towards the victim, not allowing the accused to gum up the works with technicalities, overly onerous standards of proof, and generally the legalistic. The trick is to afford the accused sufficient rights so that the process isn't inherently unfair but will as well allow for expeditious uncluttered determinations. The university simply cannot have in its midst predators who get away on technicalities. The stakes are different too. Expulsion as against jail time, and expulsion that is usually confidential.

While there will be mistakes, miscarriages, it's vital here that the perfect not be the enemy of the good. It is, after all, in the nature of administrative proceedings that they're more streamlined and legally relaxed than civil and criminal actions. Hearsay is allowed; documents can be reviewed under looser strictures; and non lawyers can be the deciders for some examples. Institutions within society like schools and business need the ability to govern themselves. They can be sued later if they seriously misstep. The argument that schools should not be determining for their own purposes within school criminal behaviour is a non starter.  

Most of these points emerge persuasively from Missoula. But it's not a screed. The frustrations inherent in the streamlined university process, the athletes' obtuseness and lack of self reflection, the possibility of seeing the incidents differently are all made real. But they simply don't outweigh Krakauer's argument as it emerges through his account.