On Thursday, the feminist website Jezebel ran a story titled "My Weekend In America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital." The piece profiles the horrendous happenings unfolding in Missoula, Montana. Author Katie J.M. Baker flew into Missoula for a short weekend and talked to young residents and enrolled students at the University of Montana in an effort to understand a newly launched Federal investigation in the city. As Baker summarizes: "On May 1st, the Federal Department of Justice launched an investigation into possible gender bias in the handling of sexual assault allegations by the Missoula Police Department, the County Attorney's Office, and the University of Montana." Allegedly, there has been over 80 incidents of mishandled rape cases in the past three years in Missoula. The majority of the rapes have been brought by students at the University of Montana, and the football team seems to be major culprits in this investigation, surely pointing to something that's inherently out of line in America's undergraduate party culture.
Eighty mishandled cases of rape is an appalling number. I certainly consider myself a feminist and there's no question in my mind that there's something very, very wrong with what's going on in Missoula. Too many of my female friends have been sexually assaulted, and I have no tolerance for rape or sexual assault in any form. Under no circumstance is it alright, period.
But here's where it gets complicated for me: I was born and raised in Missoula, and this is not the community I know. I am a proud Missoulian. I love this place and the tight-knit community that raised me. When one person falls, we're all there to help them stand back up again-that's the community I know and love.
So what on earth is going on?
When I first saw the article yesterday afternoon I was enraged. I immediately read it very fast, and began to rant to my colleague that this inflammatory title was outrageous and didn't represent my hometown, that it was a label imposed by an outsider to generate news and was entirely sensational in an effort to garner readership. Baker interviewed young residents who were smoking bowls during their discussions and who were nursing hangovers over coffee. It seemed as if she was trying to paint a demonized portrait of a community I didn't recognize in order to prove her point.
But then, after I calmed down and reread the article, I began to see some truth to what Baker says. The point she is trying to prove, ultimately that the victim-blaming is rampant and wrong, is one that I agree with. Once I looked past the fact that this was my beloved hometown, I came to realize that this could be any college town in the United States. And if it weren't my hometown, I'd certainly be appalled and outraged regardless.
It’s clear that these cases in Missoula are a gross manifestation of the binge-drinking, binge-partying culture pervasive in most American universities. While we certainly produce top scholars and groundbreaking academic work, we also — particularly at an undergraduate level — have a serious partying problem. Now, I’m not claiming to be innocent of this, I certainly was an 18-year old college student at one point. But it seems that when we reach a point where rape has become so rampant as to blame the victim, and students are dying because of hazing, things have gone too far.
A recent article in Rolling Stone titled “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuses” chronicles the hazing and partying culture of Dartmouth’s notorious fraternities. A former member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, in an effort to stop widespread and dangerous hazing, chronicled his life in the fraternity, from vulgar and extreme hazing rituals to typical parties and shenanigans of his house. The reckless atmosphere and culture of promiscuity is taken to new extremes as students binge drink to dangerous levels, acknowledge use of date-rape drugs, and promote a culture of extreme recklessness. According to the article, Dartmouth even "de-recognized" the fraternity Zeta Psi "after it circulated a newsletter in which some of the brothers promised to reveal 'patented date-rape techniques.'"
I can’t help but see a parallel between what is unfolding in Missoula and the revelations at Dartmouth. There’s also the tragic death of Cornell student George Desdunes in February of 2011 from alcohol poisoning after a hazing event. And the hazing related death of FAMU drum major Robert Champion in 2011.
What is happening in our universities? This is surely a crisis in American college culture. Why do our student’s actions not mirror the morals of the institutions in which they study? How do we move forward and promote a safer environment for all?
To be honest, I don’t really know the answers to these questions, nor am I certain where to start looking for them. How does one change the risk-taking culture of youth? Could there be other factors at play here? Maybe the sense of entitlement and invincibility young people feel? Or maybe something deeper, such as an inability to handle personal problems and peer pressure? Or perhaps the economy, war and other larger issues the people of the U.S. are facing?
The only remedy I can think of is to send a clear message that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated, that it will result in serious repercussions. And, most importantly, no one — whether athlete or fraternity member — -is above facing consequences for their actions.
The details of the investigation in Missoula will certainly be telling. But while I think it’s inexcusable that perhaps some level of management — be it in the University of Montana, the Missoula Police Department, or some other bureaucratic agency — is at fault, what is truly telling to me is that 80 women were raped. While their rapists absolutely need to be prosecuted and each case needs to be examined thoroughly, it’s also time for America to do some reflecting to figure what upholds this culture that made it possible for so many women to be raped in the first place.
While I sit in New York, reflecting with my friends and family back home as to why this happened, I hope the rest of the country can begin to do a similar reflection and figure out why college partying has gone to such an unhealthy extreme, and why victims of sexual assault are still blamed by both themselves and a good portion of society.
When rape and death are involved, we’ve certainly gone too far.
And to Missoula, we sure as hell are going to overcome this. By critically examining what’s going on internally, we can set an example through our actions for the rest of the country. We are not the "Rape Capital" of the United States, and we need to prove Baker wrong through the measures we take in response to these events. Our actions in the coming months will be most telling, and will define us as a community. It’s time to step up and figure out what got us to this point and what we need to do to never, ever be here again. This article was hard for me to write because I’m really not sure why this happened in Missoula. But, as it did, it’s time we roll up our sleeves, come together and set a strong message for those in the university and around the country.