College Campuses and Non Stranger Rapes

At the recommendation of one of our educational consulting colleagues, I just finished reading Missoula: Rape and The Justice System in a College Town, by John Krakauer. I rarely read non fiction books except those that are directly related to mental health issues, dealing with anxiety, depression, personality disorders, attachment, and/or addiction. However, this book was very well written and kept my attention. Here is my short summary, but it is really worth the entire read.

On high school and college campuses across our nation, there really is an epidemic of what are called “non stranger rapes”. These types of rapes happen between “acquaintances” and are usually accompanied by a night of all night partying. Some begin with a man putting a drug in a woman’s drink, but others start out more innocently. What makes this type of crime so scary is that in most cases, when a victim comes forward and tells law enforcement of a crime such as a theft, or someone mugged me, we assume the victim is telling the truth and look for evidence to support the victim’s portrayal of the crime. Unfortunately, often law enforcement tend to believe the assailant and assume the woman was a willing participant who then had remorse and therefore accused the man of the rape. This book tells the story of a rash of rapes in Missoula, Montana. The problem was that these rapes were not investigated well or prosecuted. Unfortunately, the incidence of rapes there is more the norm, not the exception. The national average in towns under 100,000 is .27 percent or 90 female victims per year. Part of the problem was that the Missoula football team had several high profile athletes that were involved in questionable sexual activities and the community had difficulty believing that such great, outstanding athletes could have committed these crimes.

The book explains, with case studies, the evidence and the difficulty with prosecuting non stranger rapes. Did the female put themselves in a compromising position? Did they start the interaction with consensual sex and then, as things progressed, choose to say no? In Montana, the crime is called sex without consent. What makes these cases tricky is that when females experience a sexual assault, they exhibit all the symptoms associated with a physical trauma. For instance, they may have a very non linear memory of events and may be so traumatized at first that they feel shame and a reluctance to share any information with others. They may not scream and may act in a way that “looks” compliant. They may also, completely without any understanding or knowledge of the connection, begin to change how they relate to the world– drinking more, or having promiscuous behavior following the rape. Toward the end of the book, the author describes a friend who went into treatment and learned the term, “trauma repetition” in which the victim tries to take back control and in some way re-create the situation with a better outcome. These well documented behaviors, after a traumatic event, are portrayed by attorneys for defendants as examples of the instability of the victim. Typical symptoms of PTSD are: “flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, depression, isolation, suicidal thoughts, outbursts of anger, unrelenting anxiety, and an inability to shake the feeling that the world is spinning out of control.” We know that many of the young women we send to therapeutic treatment have experienced rape and aggression and have not reported these incidences out of shame, trauma, or concern for how public their private lives might become in a legal situation. They suffer in secret for many years. My favorite quote from this book is a description of a friend of the author’s after a rape occurred: “The men who assaulted her didn’t just steal her innocence; they poisoned her understanding of who she was. They transformed her into a kind of ghost, trapped forever in the act of being violated.” (pg. 347)

In a criminal court, the burden of proof for a guilty verdict is “beyond a shadow of a doubt”. Because these women knew their assailants and may have initiated a sexual encounter, it creates doubt about whether the sexual act was consensual or not. But in a University setting, the burden of proof for discipline or school expulsion can be lower– a preponderance of evidence. If a male is expelled for inappropriate sexual behavior from a school, he does not have a criminal record or go on a sex offender registry. We know that our high schools and universities have a problem with drinking and drugs– but do we also pay the same attention to the prevalence of rape? The biggest way to prevent this behavior is to educate ALL of us to speak up and tell young men it is NEVER OK to have sex with a girl who is not completely coherent or who tells you NO. “No does not mean yes.” And, if you have to think about it or have any doubts, the answer is NO. Our job as adults is to explain how one bad, intoxicated or drug induced bad decision can have terrible life long consequences.

I just watched a video of a talk given by a prosecutor from a rape trial from a case from Vanderbilt University to a group of men at an all boys school. It is a powerful message and testimony and I wish all young men and women could see this video prior to attending college. For women, be careful to be safe and not put yourself in a dangerous situation–intoxication and partying can make people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. For men, do not follow the crowd when you know something is getting out of hand. Respect women like you would want someone to respect your mother or your sister. For adults working in these settings, if something looks “off” or fishy, speak up and do not let a woman who is clearly not completely coherent be put in a position to be harmed.



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