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.