Guest Post: Why We Must Improve the Conversation About Sexual Assault in Missoula and Montana

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As a college student, I know the incidence of sexual assault and rape on campus is all too real. The fact that 106 American universities are currently under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence cases is a necessary reminder that this is a problem not exclusive to specific regions or demographics. Rape culture permeates all spheres of our lives: our offices, schools, and communities.

With the release of Jon Krakauer’s Missoula, and the recent ruling of the University of Montana rape case won by Lisa Kauffman and her defense team that found Timothy Schwartz not guilty, this is an even more crucial time for Montana to exhibit sensible and sensitive discourse in the discussion about rape and sexual assault. This is not a time for pushback regarding over-prosecution of sexual assault cases just because, as Kauffman claims, “there is a mass hysteria over campus sex assaults.”

In her opinion column for the Missoulian, Kauffman is provoking this unwarranted pushback. She uses sweeping generalizations to stereotype sexual assault cases and over-emphasizes the prevalence of false reporting of sexual assault and rape. Although false accusations unquestionably exist, they are certainly not the biggest problem facing our communities today. The attention given to false reporting and publicized by the infamous Rolling Stone article is disproportionate to its actual rate of occurrence: only 2% – 8% of sexual assault reports are false. I am not dismissing this as a valid issue, only asserting that the other 92% – 98% of cases as vastly more deserving of attention. Men and women who have the courage to report their assaults deserve to be taken seriously, free of the type of insinuation and character assassination that often follows.

Although, it’s important to recognize that the falsely accused certainly deserve a legitimate defense as Kauffman is advocating for, it does not justify her cringe-worthy generalizations about the men and women who choose to speak up about their sexual assaults.

Similarly, the right of victim anonymity is crucial. Kauffman laments Schwartz’s “ruined” reputation and unfairly portrays the alleged victim, remaining anonymous, as emerging on top. If victim anonymity is not provided, how can we expect the reporting rate (which currently stands at a shockingly low 32%) to rise at all?

Kauffman fails to acknowledge the debilitating suffering that countless sexual assault victims endure, including those who do not report their assaults, and instead emphasizes that Schwartz suffered in “his own private hell.” Schwartz was only acquitted on the basis that there was not enough evidence to convict him, according to one of the jurors. His acquittal doesn’t erase the fact that the incident happened. If indeed she was a victim of rape, her loss was certainly greater than his.

Finally, hiding insensitive comments about an alleged rape victim behind a declaration of feminism is callous. Feminism doesn’t work as a disclaimer; claiming to be a feminist doesn’t simply provide justification for a victim-insensitive argument. I recognize that feminism manifests itself in many different ways, and the movement is anything but cohesive; but an article that suggests that a simple declaration of feminism means that their view of rape is more valid or objective than anyone else’s, is disingenuous.

This conversation about sexual assault and rape culture, particularly on our campuses, is difficult but necessary. In fact, 1 in 6 American women and 1 in 33 American men are victims of attempted or completed rape. What’s more important is how we talk about it: we must be willing to be sensitive to the trauma they’ve undergone and be willing to take rape claims seriously without conditioning the reliability on the basis of victim’s past history. We must understand that not all victims respond to sexual assault in the same manner and protect their right to anonymity in court. Strong communities hinge on this very ability to respond to problems. This ability begins with discourse, creation of safe spaces for victims, and continuing to push for prosecutions. When this is done, we all win, not lose, as Kauffman suggests.

Rachel Skaar is a student at Georgetown University and is from Helena, Montana.

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About the author

Rachel Skaar

Rachel Skaar is a student at Georgetown University and is from Helena, Montana.

11 Comments

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  • Kauffman is right. The protections the Constitution provides to people facing criminal accusations do not permit what you are calling for, Rachel. Victim anonymity or a reduced evidentiary burden in criminal prosecutions will not happen unless you eliminate the Billl of Rights and overturn everything the Warren Court did. Increasing prosuction to combat rape will work about as well as it did to combat drugs.

    • Skaar is right and has Posted an awesome, informative work.

      Observe those who craft false equivalencies, then shirk from work.

    • I’m not sure you really get the argument here. Rachel seems to be responding to the argument that the media should name accusers. Of course they shouldn’t, as it will only increase the likelihood that those attacked won’t report.

      Moreover, the assertion that increasing prosecution won’t work is wrong: one of the reasons that rape culture is allowed to fester is that prosecutors, like those in Missoula County for a long time, refused to prosecute. Doing that will certainly control some of the worst behaviors and send the message that consent is non-negotiable.

      • Right that Prosecution will work!

        Does the perpetrator have more right to privacy than does the victim, in a big city?

        Or on a college campus. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, today says one out of five women will be sexually assaulted when seeking a college education.

        Certainly the victim can disclose the name of the offender to the College and to Police and to friends and family. Could the victim disclose a physical description of the perp, to social media, or the College newspaper?

        How much would that improve the terribly low rate of reporting of sexual assault, balanced against costs to the Public and the perp?

        If a man was sexually assaulted, when can sectors of media release the name of the perp? Sometimes not until after 2-3 years of litigation and Prosecution?

        imho that’s an unreasonable term of right to privacy of the person named as the offender. But maybe perfectly Legal.
        Let this Post not be a diversion.

        • How many sexual assault/rape, attempted rape
          Reports in your area make false accusations?

          Maybe one in ten?
          Then that’s yet another reason to consider,
          When the name of the alledged offender,
          Can/should be disclosed/released to disparate media.

          For instance, in cases of aggravated assault,
          when do/should the Police or Sheriff release the name
          of the alledged offender to mass media ?

          Say a month or two after Report Filed ?

          OR, within six months if Case scheduled for upcoming Trial ?

          Timely release of name of alledged perp might shorten pre-trial litigation and Prosecution proceedings.

          Fair procedural access of a large number of individuals to the seeking of Justice, must be balanced against right of privacy shielding an individual against specious allegations.

          I’m just thankful that the Post by Rachel Skaar
          (responding to the Kaufman article)
          helped me start to build an important new perspective,
          to my two perspective thinkings ! ! !

          I hope my two diversions will help other comment and opinion and expression about a Students view in the Post by Rachel Skaar !

          (To me, it’s filed next to the context of the USA college student victims of sexual assault, who have orignated a Bill before Congress with bi-partisan support, to allow such as an on-line Registry where sexual assaults are Filed and Maintained. Go to MSNBC with Kirsten Gillibrand for more.)

      • Do you have any data that shows that increased prosecution of sex crimes actually accomplishes the ‘behavior control’ or ‘message sending’ you refer to? Or is it just something you feel? I see a lot of so-called liberals here pleading for more prosecution, with little understanding of what exactly that entails.

        Kauffman never suggests that media should name the accusers. She instead cautions us against joining seemingly progressive lynch mobs, she cautions us against whittling down the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments because we really hate rapists in the same way Bush&Co did post 9/11 when we really hated terrorists.

        • You’re wrong on one count for sure. Prosecuting those who commit sexual assault reduces offenses, because it puts rapists behind bars. Here are two cites:

          Abbey, A., Parkhill, M., Clinton?Sherrod, A. M., Zawacki, T. (2007). A Comparison of Men Who Committed Different Types of Sexual Assault in a Community Sample. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22(12), 1567?580.; Lisak, D., & Miller, P (2002). Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists. Violence and Victims, 17, 73?84.

          Loh, C., Gidycz, C., Lobo, T., Luthra, R. (2005). A Prospective Analysis of Sexual Assault Perpetration Risk Factors Related to Perpetrator Characteristics. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(10), 1325?348.

          I also reject the notion that somehow “county” people lack the sophistication and values to bring convictions. The DoJ report demonstrated that the issues were a refusal of county attorneys to believe victims and to prosecute even people who were seen on video tape drugging a drink or confessing!

          Education is crucial. But so is prosecution.

          And I don’t think either you or Kauffman make the case that prosecution of suspected rapists will whittle down the “4th, 5th and 6th amendments. In what way do you believe that is happening?

          • Those are three cites, not two, and you lifted them from a White House memo that asserts people who rape often have so more than once (no shit), NOT that prosecution rates (measured, one would think, by cases brought per capita)or any other law enforcement tool have an effect on actual rates of rape, reported or not. You could throw a squillion dollars to create an elite Sexual Assault Task Force or whatever of superhero lawyers/cops/social workers/psychologists and there’s not a scintilla of evidence to show that it would do anything other than make us feel like we did something.

            County attorneys, like all prosecutors, seek a high conviction rate (or ‘justice,’ if they’re on the campaign trail.) If they are faced with a he said-she said case, and the ‘she’ doesn’t want to testify or if her story has holes, or has changed over time, the state’s chance of convicting plummets. It doesn’t really matter if the prosecutor believes the victim, that’s not really what’s going through their mind– if the victim, in the prosecutor’s eyes, doesn’t come off as believable, there’s really no point in prosecuting because it’ll end with a hung jury or acquittal at best, or sanctions from the judge at worst. The whole thing ends as a gigantic waste of time and money, and no one is happy in the end.

            The mere rosecution of rape doesn’t necessitate constitutional violation, but your guest writer warns us readers that “This is not a time for pushback regarding over-prosecution of sexual assault cases,” as if sometimes we need to prosecute people even if they’re innocent in order to get ‘justice’ for the rest of us. That’s cold comfort for the innocent 8% who are sitting in prison or living under highway overpasses if they’re lucky, forever labeled sex offenders.

            • Did you actually read the reports I cited? They make exactly the argument that I assert: that one of the reasons for prosecution is to prevent future assaults. That they are from White House report on the need to do more to prevent sexual assault does nothing to undermine their credibility, either.

              Your second paragraph perfectly encapsulates what was so wrong with the Missoula Co. Attorney’s office: obsessed with win rates, they didn’t take cases they worried they might lose. That they feared being terrible prosecutors is hardly an argument for letting rapists walk. Again, I encourage you to read the DoJ report. In clear-cut cases, the Missoula Co. Attorney walked away from trial.

              You’re reading something into the post that simply isn’t there. There’s no call for prosecuting the innocent, or putting them in jail if they are found not guilty. There are FAR more cases of unreported rape because of a culture in which police, school officials, and attorneys simply don’t prosecute. When victims of sexual assault are disbelieved, inappropriately questioned, and judged by LEO and county attorneys, as happened repeatedly in Missoula, it makes it even less likely for victims to report.

              No one is calling for innocent people to be put away, but it’s important to realize there is a far greater problem with under-reporting and under prosecution than there is with false accusation.

  • Thanks for writing this. I wish you had pointed out however, that ‘not guilty’ does NOT equal innocent, and that every jury member on that jury actually believed that he was guilty. They just didn’t think the ‘evidentiary standard’ was met which says a LOT about rape culture. Here’s a piece from the jury foreman of the first trial, about how frustrated he was with the outcome of the hung jury.

    http://missoulanews.bigskypress.com/missoula/what-we-need-now/Content?oid=2101768

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