Krakauer discusses sexual assault on college campuses

JOSHUA BOUCHER | Staff Photographer
Jon Krakauer discusses rape culture on Friday in the Amphitheater. His book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, documents sexual assault at University of Montana and how law enforcement and the administration responded.

When Jon Krakauer first received his invitation to come speak at Chautauqua Institution on the Week Two theme “Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men,” he said it “scared the hell” out of him.

Despite his initial trepidation, Krakauer agreed to visit and discuss his latest book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, published in  April. In his first visit to Chautauqua, he spoke on the morning lecture platform Friday in the Amphitheater.

By Krakauer’s own admission, he’s not a public speaker, so Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Sherra Babcock was there to moderate the morning’s discussion. Sexual assault is a matter close and personal to Babcock, who served as vice president and dean of students at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where she dealt firsthand with the issue of campus rape.

Rape is neither a college problem nor an issue that solely affects women. Babcock and Krakauer reminded the audience that men are also victims of sexual assault — predominantly gay men, who are often assaulted by men who identify as straight.

According to Krakauer, less than 20 percent of rapes are reported to police, less than 5 percent are ever prosecuted and less than 3 percent result in a conviction that includes jail time.

“In other words, when someone is raped in this country, the rapist gets away with it 97 percent of the time,” he said. “Another number to chew on: At least 80 percent of rape survivors do not report the crime to authorities. These numbers are undisputed and not speculative.”

Missoula was an effort on Krakauer’s part to understand the meaning of those numbers and the repercussions of sexual assault from the victim’s perspective. One of Krakauer’s sources was clinical psychologist David Lisak, a nationally recognized expert on sexual violence.

Lisak found that 85 percent of rapes are committed by an acquaintance of the victim. To understand how these perpetrators escape scrutiny, he devised a study of 1,882 male students at the University of Massachusetts with an average age of 24. Lisak was unsurprised to learn that 120 of these men (6 percent of the sample) were identified as rapists.

But what did shock him was that 76 of the 120 undetected student rapists (63 percent) were also repeat offenders who were collectively responsible for at least 439 rapes, an average of six assaults per rapist.

He re-examined his data for errors but found none. He compared his results to a 2009 study by Stephanie Kay McWhorter, which examined 1,149 Navy recruits with no histories of sexual assault. It replicated his results. Approximately 8.4 percent of the recruits turned out to be repeat offenders, each of whom were responsible for assaulting six people on average.

Lisak’s conclusion was that a small number of indiscernible offenders were responsible for a staggering number of rapes.

“Most men are not rapists, but a small number rape and get away with it over and over,” Krakauer said.

Lisak’s process was random, and all subjects participated voluntarily. They answered questions such as “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone because they were too intoxicated to resist your sexual advances?” and “Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you threatened to use physical force if they didn’t cooperate?”

Those who answered yes to those questions were invited back. Krakauer said Lisak was careful never to use the words “rape” or “sexual assault,” even though what he was asking and the responses showed repeated instances of both.

To preserve the scientific process, Lisak withheld judgment and bias. The subjects had no idea the subject of his research or what they were admitting to.

“These men, like many others, shared the common idea that rapists wore ski masks, wielded knives and dragged women into the bushes,” Krakauer said. “But these undetected rapists don’t wear ski masks, wield knives or drag women in the bushes. They had no sense of themselves as rapists.”

Krakauer said most serial rapists were regarded as “nice guys, who would never rape anyone.” They were good students, devout Christians and star athletes. But they were found to be more narcissistic than average, carried a tremendous sense of entitlement and lacked the ability to see what they do from the perspective of their victims.

“They can’t seem to understand a ‘yes’ yesterday could become a ‘no’ today,” he said. “To them ‘a deal’s a deal.’ One of the most striking things is that these rapists are not extreme people. They’ve been taught that the rules don’t apply to them.”

Rape and sexual assault are also entrenched in strong traditions, such as those in fraternities and sports teams, Krakauer said. Since universities often rely on fraternities for fundraising and sports’ teams for prestige and revenue, it makes them unwilling to pursue investigations, preferring to “stick their heads in the sand.”

One of the examples Krakauer detailed in his book was the case of Missoula star quarterback Jordan Johnson, who was found guilty by the university on three separate occasions of raping a woman. The University Court voted 7-0 to expel him.

But he wasn’t expelled.

He appealed to the commissioner of higher education in Montana. In a secret hearing, his conviction was overturned, and he returned to play quarterback the next year.

If a sports coach had zero tolerance for these crimes, it would make a difference, Krakauer said. But that almost never happens because the universities and coaches care more about their reputation and winning than rape victims.

“It’s disgusting how universities are complicit in this problem,” he said.

Failing to aggressively prosecute rapists like Johnson causes tangible harm to the community, Krakauer said. It becomes normalized.

As the statistics show, a sexual offender has likely committed rape prior, and the odds increase that offenders will do so again if not stopped. By failing to properly investigate, law enforcers enable serial rapists’ continued brutality.

“They get better at [perpetrating rape] than we do at detecting it,” he said.

The problem, Krakauer said, is that most officials don’t see these serial rapists for the danger they are. Even when they do, officials are reluctant to file charges because they’re convinced the odds of proving guilt are too slim to justify the time, resources or emotional toll. They rationalize this reluctance to prosecute by arguing their job is to act in the best interest of the state.

But by simply investigating a reported rape, the police can become aware of a sexual predator’s existence and know the rapist will most likely strike again.

According to Lisak’s data, the odds that a rape is committed by a serial rapist are 90 percent.

He endorsed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s adoption last week of California’s “Yes Means Yes” law to make consent even more delineated and clear.

“It’s one way to force men and women to understand,” Krakauer said. “It’s not that difficult to hear a positive ‘yes’ before. There are people who say, ‘Oh, it’s going to make sex too complicated.’ I’m not worried about that.”

In Krakauer’s opinion, the conversation should begin at the onset of puberty and include tough topics like sex and alcohol. Particularly on college campuses, he said, rapists use alcohol as a weapon against their potential victims and, sometimes, to let themselves off the hook.

He relayed an anecdote from a university hearing where a father and mother of an accused young man said their son was a “teddy bear” and would “absolutely not” rape. When asked if they had spent any time around their son when he was intoxicated, though, the answer was no.

These rapists also wield silence as a weapon, counting on the statistics that show the overwhelming amount of rapes that go unreported, Krakauer said.

While Krakauer acknowledged the criminal justice system was “terrible” when it came to rape cases, he also said the bravery of victims to stand up and of those who take action against campus predators can make a difference.

In many cases, the rape victims Krakauer interviewed wanted him to use their real names, despite his cautioning them about the potential consequences and offering to use pseudonyms.

“They were very brave by saying, ‘I have nothing to be ashamed of. My rapist is the one who should be ashamed,’ ” he said. “To come forward is courageous and crucial to solving the problem.”

The only trauma that compares to rape, in Krakauer’s mind, is the stress of combat, which he personally saw overseas when embedded with the military in Afghanistan. He attends monthly support groups with veterans he befriended. But Krakauer considers rape more insidious because the process of earning justice exacerbates the trauma and often re-victimizes the person.

From the defense attorney doing everything in his or her power to create doubt and attack the victim to the media’s “slut-shaming” or airing the sordid details — it can be like reliving the rape, he said.

Krakauer understands the intense sensitivity of these topics and how difficult these conversations are. To this day, his wife has not read the book, and he said she most likely will not.

“This book is hard for everyone who touches it,” he said.