The Missoula Spotlight

In her TIME Magazine article “The Sexual Assault Crisis On American Campuses,” Eliza Gray describes how the rape reports leading to the media labeling The University of Montana in Missoula a “rape capital” shouldn’t be considered unique to Montana. Instead, she argues, they should be understood as consistent with a terrifying national reality.

She beings by citing the statistic that one in five women are sexually assaulted while at college, taking care to dispel doubt that the number might be inflated due to ambiguity in definitions. She also dispels the fear that the number might indicate that a large number of college males are rapists; studies show that most offenses are carried out by a small population of repeat offenders.

The article recounts how Missoula came to be the center of national attention. It began with an outside investigator being brought in to research whether two females had been raped by a football player, which lead to another woman coming forward about her own experience being sexually assaulted by a football player. Following that, the reports began coming in droves. Gray states that such a pattern is typical – high profile cases cause victims who haven’t spoken up to feel more empowered to come forward. After all, the vast majority of sexual assaults aren’t reported to law enforcement.

She discusses the effect high profile rape cases have on popular stereotypes about sexual assault. Data gathered about males in college makes it hard to believe in the image where a sexual assault perpetrator is a shady stranger hiding in a dark alley with a knife. However, the term “date rape,” which largely replaced the stranger-in-an-alley stereotype, is also problematic because it construes rape as being perpetrated by people who are otherwise datable, who just make a small mistake when they’re not in their right mind. As above, most rapes are committed by a small group of repeat offenders who often go unpunished.

Next the article describes what’s called the “Frank Video,” a reenactment of interview between a researcher and college student that reveals a startling reality about some students’ sexual practices. The actor playing the student explicitly admits to trying to manipulate freshman girls to get excessively drunk, then forcing them to have sexual intercourse. Gray explains that alcohol culture at college works against women. There’s a widespread idea that it’s acceptable for men to manipulate women to have sex, and that “no” is just a slight barrier to be overcome with clever tricks. According to one study the article cites, many women who are victims of sexual assault don’t even know that what they experienced is considered a crime. Do you think most people at Vanderbilt would know if they had been sexually assaulted?

Gray then proceeds to detail the effects of the Obama administration’s efforts to pressure colleges to reform their protocol for handling sexual assault. She talks about logistically small items like training programs and educational videos, but she also discusses larger discourse shifts like adding bystander intervention to the conversation about what changes need to take place. Many students at Missoula felt as though they saw a positive shift with rape culture, although they still felt its presence strongly. The article spends some time with how the county attorney of Missoula reacted to being accused of discriminating against female rape victims, which seemed like a bit of a non sequitur.

Gray concludes by talking about what the path forward looks like, speculating about whether Missoula’s new measures would be effective, and discussing what options the Obama administration has to pressure schools to improve their procedure for handling assault cases.

This article was different from many other pieces we’ve read in class in that it was directed toward an audience the majority of which will probably never take a gender studies course. As a result, it seemed more interested in communicating basic facts about sexual assault (the one in five statistic) rather than engaging in any high level theoretical work. In that regard it was successful. It’s good to see that activists know how to work an audience, avoiding dropping Marxist critical theory on people who might never have even heard the term “rape culture” before.

*Puts on philosophy major hat* The issue of the tension between the esoteric and the exoteric necessarily exists in every political struggle. *removes hat* Or to say it less esoterically, because social movements involve large numbers of people, activists have to be ready to cater to varying literacy levels. It reminds me a bit of Emma Watson’s #HeforShe campaign.

Whatever your opinion of it, it’s clear that it was designed to be easy to digest as possible. No high-flown theory, no -ologies, -isms, or –archies with intimidating syllable counts to scare people off. That’s the way it should be done in my opinion. Can you think of a gender-issues related example where you felt like someone dropped the ball with knowing their audience though? Either speaking at too high or low a level?


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