FEATURE

IX Lives

Campus Sex, Campus Security (Semiotext(e) / Intervention Series) BY Jennifer Doyle. Semiotext(e). Paperback, 144 pages. $13.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town BY Jon Krakauer. Doubleday. Hardcover, 384 pages. $28.

In the spring of 2015, Jon Krakauer, the author of best sellers about mountaineering and Afghanistan, moved into new territory that, he implied, was too-little understood. He reported on “a rash of sexual assaults” against female college students that took place in a single town, Missoula, Montana, between 2010 and 2012. Krakauer informs the reader that, statistically, Missoula is no worse than the average American town when it comes to rape and how poorly the reported cases are handled. Rape, he writes, “is a much more common crime than most people realize.” And: “Rape, it turns out, occurs with appalling frequency throughout the United States.” He also takes pains to show why so many assaults go unreported: Again, “it turns out” that “reticence” is “common among victims of sexual assault. No more than 20 percent of rapes are reported to the police, a statistic that defies comprehension until one looks closely at how sexual-assault cases are adjudicated.”

On its back cover, Missoula promises “stories that illuminate the human drama behind the national plague of campus rape.” Krakauer’s faith in the redemptive power of storytelling is evident throughout. “Rapists rely on the silence of their victims to elude accountability,” he writes at the end of the book.

Simply by recounting their stories and breaking that silence, survivors of sexual assault strike a powerful blow against their assailants. Inevitably, many victims who come forward will be disbelieved. . . . But by speaking out, they are likely to encourage other victims to tell their stories, too.

Krakauer is not wrong to note this: Telling your story does not guarantee you will be believed. It doesn’t guarantee anything positive. There is no way to tell a rape story without risk. Rape is often used to explain something about you, the person it has happened to: why you’re so angry, why you’re such a whore (whether or not you charge for it), how you ended up like this. But, for Krakauer, the risk is worthwhile, because the story of one’s own rape can become a tool to help other survivors and effect change.

Missoula is a work of journalism, told from the point of view of victims and survivors (here I’ll use both terms, to speak to both and the spaces between), using their own words. The reporting is worthy. But Krakauer’s conclusion that to be brave and tell our stories will lead to fundamental change is too optimistic. It is a myth that before a victim or survivor speaks out—before the journalists arrive, before the reports are filed—rape remains hidden, somewhere apart from where the rest of us are. From “the shadows,” Krakauer writes in closing, “more and more survivors emerge,” working to “reveal the pervasiveness of sexual assault.” And then what? People have been telling these stories for a long time—what is it that decades of them have not been sufficient to “reveal”? Krakauer claims it really was a revelation for him, that this new information is what motivated his reporting (“I was stunned to discover that many of my acquaintances, and even several women in my own family, had been sexually assaulted by men they trusted. . . . I’d had no idea that rape was so prevalent, or could cause such deep and intractable pain”). Yet this should hardly be news to most readers, even those who are not victims and survivors of rape.

The many detailed rape accounts in Krakauer’s book—accounts that are sometimes repeated, as if from different camera angles, retold through police reports, trial transcripts, and interviews—leave no doubt about what rape is and what rape does. They produce a seasick, anxious feeling: that no one story can turn this system around. The most ill-making narrative here is not that of rape itself, but of a system set up to extract stories from victims and survivors without offering any reasonable hope that such a painful display will result in anything of value for them.

The story Krakauer presents as having had the “best” outcome for a victim or survivor is that of Allison Huguet. “Dear Detective Baker,” she writes, in an e-mail Krakauer quotes, “I worked with you on swat training my senior year of high school. There is a situation I have been put in, in Missoula, and I would love to talk about it with you.” This is how Huguet sets in motion the prosecution of her childhood friend Beau Donaldson, who raped her the year before she sent the e-mail. Donaldson, partly because he knows that Huguet has an audio recording of him confessing, pleads guilty and is incarcerated. It helps that Huguet is on friendly terms with a local cop. But is that what it takes? It is rare for someone to have such friends.

Reading Missoula, it is clear that the processes by which people are told to seek justice—to report, to expose, to never let it happen to another person—themselves do damage. Krakauer stacks up each small ordeal someone navigating the system must face: telling a friend, going to the hospital, submitting your body to evidence collection (getting a “rape kit” done), filing a report. The process, of course, does not require the consent of the victim or survivor. It’s police and prosecutors who hold the power, and even the choice to press charges is not yours—it belongs to a lawyer who represents not you but the state.

Krakauer’s optimism about the possibilities for improvement within the system seems strange, especially given his descriptions of some of those in charge. Take Missoula’s most stunning character—who in real life tried to halt publication of the book—the lawyer Kirsten Pabst. While working for Missoula’s prosecutor’s office, she publishes hot takes on her “Pabstblawg,” blaming her town’s “sexual crisis” on reporters and “disgruntled young adults.” After declining to prosecute a case of alleged sexual assault, she goes so far as to appear at a university hearing as a witness for the accused student. In 2014, she is elected as Missoula County Prosecuting Attorney, a position she still holds.

Krakauer reports that Missoula police have now adopted more enlightened policies. Yes, he writes, Pabst—who blames victims and survivors for coming forward; who seems to have trouble with the legal definition of consent—is still in the prosecutor’s office, but nonetheless, “revamped practices have already increased the likelihood that any given sexual assault in Missoula will be successfully prosecuted.” We’ll have to wait for local reporters to investigate that. In any case, after hundreds of pages of interviews, court records, and expert opinions from trauma and sexual-assault researchers, it’s almost as if Krakauer hasn’t understood his own story, or the conclusions it points to. For all the details he piles on, he misses one: power. The system is still stacked against victims and survivors.

Of course, there isn’t only one system at work here. As well as the criminal one led by police and prosecutors, there is the approach led by university administrators. Student activists not long ago discovered Title IX, a 1972 law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education, as a possible strategy to address campus sexual assault. Launching the project Know Your IX in 2013, Dana Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky described the experience of reporting their own rapes: “One of us was discouraged from filing a complaint within Yale’s disciplinary system . . . and advised to tell no one to protect her ‘reputation.’ . . . The other of us was told to take time off and go home in order to escape her rapist’s continued harassment and stalking.” They reported that a dean at Amherst said: “Get a job at Starbucks or Barnes and Noble, and come back after he’s graduated.”

They did not look to Title IX as the solution to rape on campus—merely one administrative and civil remedy to try. Over the past few years, activists have organized around Title IX, continuing work that began as far back as 2000, when groups like SAFER started campaigning and building a database of campus-sexual-assault policies. In 2011, the Department of Education issued new guidelines for campus administrators on their “responsibilities” as Title IX coordinators, tasked with responding to student reports of sexual assault and adopting grievance procedures to resolve them. There have been investigations, disciplinary hearings, trainings, memos, and press conferences—and a body of rape texts has developed that’s primarily concerned with reducing, not the risk of rape, but the risk of administrators’ “noncompliance.”

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Some challenge the use of Title IX on the grounds that it should be purely the province of the cops and courts to evaluate rape charges. There are also feminist critiques, such as those mounted byHarvard University law professor Janet Halley. She has identified the workings of “governance feminism,” in which “feminist justice projects have moved off the street and into the state.” Some feminist campaigns against sexual violence have made gains in part by working to extend the disciplinary power of institutions. As Halley writes, these activists “imagine their favored criminal law reform to operate simply by actually eliminating precisely and only the conduct it outlaws.” She asks, What power would feminists hand to Title IX administrators, and how could that power also be abused?

Another, complementary critique is that of Jennifer Doyle, whose new book Campus Sex, Campus Security, a more theoretical and experimental text than Krakauer’s, pairs brief case studies that read almost like parables with a series of provocations about what rape has come to mean within college administrations. Doyle is witty, sharp, and empathetic, moving deftly from the infamous Rolling Stone story about rape at the University of Virginia, to Ronald Reagan’s attack on the state-university system as governor of California, to the racial profiling of students. Her book goes further than Missoula in revealing the problems in our systems for dealing with rape, and what stories those systems tell themselves.

“Title IX is the administrative structure through which the university knows what exposure feels like, what vulnerability is,” Doyle writes. “It is the sex of bureaucracy.” In handling sexual assault cases, a university is not so much investigating a crime as reducing its own risk, ensuring its compliance with Department of Education guidelines. Of most concern to an administration is not whether a rape took place—it’s whether stories of rape are being told where people can hear them, where they can make the administration vulnerable. The system doesn’t investigate in order to uphold any particular values about consent or sexual violence. The system investigates to protect itself. And as Doyle’s book illustrates, Title IX hearings may appeal to university administrators inasmuch as they allow them to “do something” without having to engage directly with what women’s sexual agency means, or with rape’s relationship to other forms of systemic violence. These are precisely the questions feminists engaged in anti-sexual-violence movements, including those outside campus walls, want to press. The “solution” to rape, they know, does not lie in more or better cops, or in more or better administrative processes, but in something that demands far more from all of us: transforming our individual and cultural relations when it comes to sex, power, and violence.

The debate on how to end campus rape is often framed as a choice between relying on the law and relying on the university—but there are serious weaknesses in both propositions. We are used to hearing that systems for dealing with rape are complicated because both sex and violence are by their nature murky and hard to navigate, blurring boundaries and defying simple definitions. Yet these punitive and legal systems themselves, without question, are also built to be difficult and opaque, and to forge on ahead without regard for our consent or limits.

You could ask, Why does it matter what spurs universities to address assault, as long as they do address it? Ending gender-based violence is a cornerstone of the feminist project, so why wouldn’t you use every weapon at your disposal to do so? After far too many decades of denial and victim-blaming, it may seem like a betrayal of that cause to do anything but welcome the moment that’s now arrived, in which rape has been elevated to a matter of national urgency—invoked in the language of illness (an “epidemic”), or disaster, or war (a “crisis”)—and the federal government is insisting on action. But it’s not hard to think of other instances in which such matters of national urgency become excuses to do far more, and far more harm.

Doyle interrogates all that we might consider as the appropriate feminist response to rape, laying a network of difficult questions over what’s often viewed as a clear-cut fight. Her book begins in November 2011, at the University of California, Davis (she is a professor of English at another UC campus, Riverside). Chancellor Linda Katehi summons campus police to break up an Occupy protest. You may recall the resulting videos of Sergeant John C. Pike—“the image of a man at work,” as Doyle writes. “The image of a campus scandal. A police officer waters demonstrators with a jet of pepper spray.” An external investigation is launched, and produces a report that quotes Katehi on the subject of another scandal, one the university sought to avoid. “The issues from Oakland were in the news,” Katehi says, meaning Occupy Oakland, then at its height, and “we were worried especially about having very young girls and other students with older people who come from the outside.” The campus administration had no choice but to shut down the protest, they claimed, for “fears of criminal activity in general and potential sexual assault specifically.” (That same rationale was employed in the same month across the country, when then-mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the destruction of Occupy Wall Street’s camp at Zuccotti Park.) Again, the real concern is for the institution’s liability, its security. It’s easy to see, in this context, how individual stories, graphic accounts of rape, might be put to use—to warn us that no official response is too serious, if it might prevent something like this from ever happening again.

Published nearly ten years ago, INCITE!’s anthology The Color of Violence set the tone for critiques of this kind of thinking, though the organization, a national group of women of color seeking to end violence, is not credited enough.Their work asks us to “reconsider a reliance on the criminal justice system,” to understand that interpersonal or intimate violence is not the only kind women face. We have ample evidence that systems of law enforcement are systems of violence. The evidence grows more public in the names that bloom across social media too quickly now, including those of women like Sandra Bland.

State sexual violence is also commonplace, especially for those women regarded as safe, acceptable targets, as bodies without boundaries to violate. Take Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma City cop who (here I am bound to say “allegedly,” as he has not yet been tried) systematically sexually assaulted women he profiled as drug users and sex workers, black women with criminal records, women who would be easy to arrest. We know of about thirteen. He was caught only when “he messed up,” as an Oklahoma City prosecutor put it: when he attempted to assault a woman who had less to lose by calling the police. If Missoula could be anywhere, as Krakauer writes, it could also be in the Oklahoma City Police Department.

If what is vile about rape is that it erodes someone’s bodily autonomy, we should not construct systems for punishing rapists that further violate a victim or survivor’s autonomy, systems that also harbor individuals who violate their targets while on the job. Still, even knowing this, we want an explanation, a good story about rape that tells us what went wrong, some structure to contain sex, or violence, or desire, or betrayal. Sex lacks bookends, but criminal and civil investigations can sometimes offer acceptable beginnings and endings. They also cast real people as characters, as object lessons, their stories their currency. Without these efforts to draw a boundary around rape and how we address it, we might be forced to understand how sexual violence cannot be confined to “the shadows.”

We must understand that these systems for punishing rape are predicated not on valuing consent or freedom, but on preserving a social order that, when rape is made visible, is regarded as out of order; this, even though we know that rape is utterly commonplace. To have faith, as Krakauer does, that telling stories of rape will help transform the situation is to assume that the system’s own interests and those of victims and survivors are more or less aligned, and that until now it hasn’t been working well enough. But if you understand that protecting people is not its primary aim, you can see that, in fact, the system has been working just fine. As Doyle writes, “Something is wrong, everything is normal.”


Melissa Gira Grant is a journalist and the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014).