What If Your Hometown Became "America's Rape Capital"?

Missoula has a problem—just like every other college town in America. A sociologist weighs in on John Krakauer's new book about sexual assault at the University of Montana.
missoula.jpg

In 2011, Missoula, Montana, was dubbed the “rape capital” of the United States. This is about the worst nickname a city could possibly earn. That year, a University of Montana student, Kerry Barrett, spoke out about how Missoula police handled her sexual assault case (badly), and within a year the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating Missoula law enforcement and the University of Montana’s handling of sexual assault and rape allegations. Google “Rape Capital of America,” and there it is: Missoula.

That reputation will persist perhaps a little longer. Last month, Jon Krakauer’s MISSOULA: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town was released. It documents the disturbing regularity of “acquaintance rape” in Missoula, and the 350 reported sexual crimes investigated by the Department of Justice that took place in the city and campus between 2008 and 2012. Many of the cases involve players on the University of Montana football team.

“We’re better than this. We’ve had good policies, but we need to do better.”

For the record: Missoula is not America’s rape capital. A college town in Western Montana of just under 70,000 people (perhaps best known for the fly-fishing film A River Runs Through It), Missoula ranks below the national average when it comes to rape and sexual assault.

Nevertheless, “Missoula” has become a stand-in for the national crisis of campus rape. In 2013, Kerry Barrett told the Huffington Post: “Missoula has a problem, but so does every other college town in this country. They're just unlucky enough to get the attention."

Despiteor because ofthis attention, Missoula has made positive steps regarding sexual assault. The DoJ reached a settlement with the school and the city creating new policies for each regarding sexaul assault crimes. Peggy Kuhr, Vice President of Integrated Communication at the University of Montana, told me in a phone interview that the attention on Missoula “focused the conversation” and made it possible for the city to take action.

“We don’t want this happening,” Kuhr said. “We’re better than this. We’ve had good policies, but we need to do better.”

Kedra Hildebrand, who grew up in Missoula and attended and worked at the University of Montana, is a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal. She studies knowledge production, and contends that “where people think from impacts what they think.” She studies, for example, women in the military, where her interests are not how women in the armed services affect combat and military goals, but how the low percentage of women affects the way the military thinks about sexual misconduct and mixed-gender combat.

She talked to me over email about what it’s like to be from a place now famous for sexual assault, why Americans tend to see rape and sexual assault as a problem happening elsewhere, and how books like Krakauer’s affect her as a mother of a young daughter.

Christopher Zumski Finke: It’s got to be strange to hear your hometown referred to by national news outlets as “America’s Rape Capital.” The numbers don’t bear that out, but for years now the name has stuck. 

Kedra Hildebrand: I wouldn’t love it if people were to respond to my saying “I am from Missoula, Montana” with, “Isn’t that the rape capital of America?” I much prefer what I usually get from Canadians and Europeans, which is something along the lines of, “How many guns do you own?”

That being said, my minor and temporary discomfort is meaningless if this kind of scrutiny is parlayed into making Missoula better at dealing with and preventing rape.

Zumski Finke: You study how events are understood and shaped by who is viewing them. Can you tell me about what that means?

Hildebrand: I research knowledge productionliterally "how they think" about thingsin institutions, and find that context such as organizational structure, social patterns, and norms all matter in the output. My research interests have included nuclear non-proliferation, global environmental politics, extra-regional forecasting, authoritarian regimes, diplomacy, academia, and gender.

Zumski Finke: Why do you think it’s so easy for Americans to look at Missoula and say, "they have a problem," without seeing the broader context of how these problems affect the whole country?

Hildebrand: This is a question with a lot of possible answers. One thing I think contributing to Missoula being seen as more problematic than other cities, is the way that the information has played out.

"My need to defend it never extended to absolving Missoula of its harsh truths."

First, there were the news stories that focused on Missoula and included several different rape allegations from multiple sources, making it seem like rape in Missoula, especially from football players, was a near constant occurrence.

Second, the label of Missoula as a “Rape Capital” hit headlines. And third is the Krakauer book which as you noted has MISSOULA in bold letters across the top. Even while Krakauer has claimed in many interviews that Missoula could be any university town, his book is a not a comparative analysis of multiple college towns, but an in-depth investigation of one. Krakauer’s single-city case analysis lays bare Missoula’s inability to handle rape cases, not America’s.

Zumski Finke: As a political scientist, what did you make of Krakauer’s book?

Hildebrand: It is incredibly well researched. The book is the unabashed reality of what victims of acquaintance rape in Missoula suffered at the hands of their abusers, their justice system, and their community. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t embellish, nor does it shirk from the ugly reality.

Zumski Finke: You grew up in the city and attended and worked for the University. What was your initial reaction back in 2011 when the local news, then national news, started to cover the sexual assault crisis?

Hildebrand: Hearing rape stories is always a little soul-crushing. Early on, I don’t think I was more troubled that it was coming from my hometown because I am under no illusions that rape doesn’t happen in Missoula or that players on the football team can’t be the abusers.

As the scrutiny increased, however, and labels such as “America’s Rape Capital” came out, things definitely began to feel more personal.

I remember feeling the need to defend Missoula, but to be very clear, my need to defend never extended to absolving Missoula of its harsh truths. Rape is depressingly pervasive in Missoula: far too many of its citizens victim-blame and are completely oblivious to what that is; the U of M campus is ill equipped to handle sexual assault cases; and the Missoula criminal justice system is an extremely problematic institution for dealing with rape cases. I only question the idea that any of what I mentioned above, is truer of Missoula than anywhere else.

I don’t know how many pretend conversations I have had with my eventually teenage daughter...

Zumski Finke: Hopefully, the attention can create a safer Missoula and University of Montana for everyone. Like you said, there is a problem in Missoula, and even if it’s not alone, that problem is real and still needs attention.

Hildebrand: I agree with you. I don’t see Missoula as being treated unfairly. One in 5 women in the United States report being sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That is an incredible statistic. Krakauer’s book draws much needed attention to the complicated, tragic, and inefficient processes which surround acquaintance rape. It is far past time for light and attention to be spread on this issue.

Zumski Finke: I have a two-year-old son; you have a two-year-old daughter. Whenever I hear stories about the prevalence of sexual assault, I always think of the challenge of raising a responsible, kind son. What sort of response do you have, as a parent to a young girl?

My visceral response is fear. The idea of someone hurting her is more than I ever want to consider, and as Krakauer’s book notes, victims are often hurt not just by their abusers but by a variety of people at every stage. Talking with you over the last week, I don’t know how many pretend conversations I have had with my eventually teenage daughter, and none of them sound sufficient.

Remove "Missoula" and replace it with the city you live in...

This is perhaps overly optimistic of me, but I do have some hope that acquaintance rape will not be as hushed or prolific in 10 or 15 years. I work at a University and I am constantly amazed by the quality of young women and men who are tackling this issue and bringing it to light. The strength of the young women in Krakauer’s book, for example, is humbling.

I am also interested in how California’s sexual consent law, in which “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary” agreement for every stage of sexual contact is going to play out, and I am thankful to see that university campuses and state governments seem to be taking this issue so seriously. I think there will likely be many missteps and only time will tell, but I have hope for my daughter’s future.

Zumski Finke: Based on what's happened in Missoula, how can folks across the country better perceive and understand the epidemic of sexual assault on campuses?

Hildebrand: I suppose it would be to remove "Missoula" and replace it with the city you live in or the city where you went to University. You said it in your question, rape is an epidemic on campuses across the United States, and according to statistics the University of Montana is in no way unique.

Missoula's story is your story.