My Weekend In America's So-Called 'Rape Capital'

"It's the altitude," the sweaty, red-cheeked fraternity brother explains. It is my first night in Missoula, Montana, and I am sitting on a stool at Stockman's Bar, watching girls in rhinestoned crop tops and boys in baggy jeans grind up on each other, pound tequila shots, and prowl around before pairing off and stumbling home before last call. Nick*, my traveling companion, is waiting outside for me with a switchblade; he can't come into Stockman's, which he and his friends call "Cockman's," since he is only 20 years old and forgot his fake I.D., but he told me it wasn't exactly safe to go there by myself. Nick, by the way, used to be what he tactfully calls a "supplier" to college kids, and he left Missoula a few months ago because he was being followed around by unmarked cars and couldn't stop shooting up heroin. So when Nick tells me to be wary of Stockman's, I listen.

"So, yeah, it's just the elevation," my new friend continues to yell into my ear. "The girls here drink too much, and the elevation fucks with their heads. So then they say they got roofied." He furrows his bushy eyebrows and raises his beer in the direction of the dance floor, which is teeming with cloudy-eyed kids gyrating to Taio Cruz. "People think we're the 'rape capital' of America now, but we're not. Missoula is just like any other college town."

Maybe. Maybe not.

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. Officials say there have been at least 80 reported rapes in Missoula over the last three years, with 11 of the sexual assaults reported over the last 18 months involving UM students, including an alleged gang-rape by members of the Grizzlies' lucrative Division I football team.

Missoula's authority figures were stunned by the announcement. In a press conference following the announcement, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said he had "no idea what triggered this investigation," and Police Chief Mark Muir said he "frankly would be shocked to learn of discriminatory practices by our department." Although Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, stressed that the primary focus was "not on the number of alleged sexual assaults but … on the response," no one seemed to understand why the Feds would target sleepy Missoula, a city of 70,000 nestled in the Rocky Mountains that, as Mayor John Engen told CNN, is "about average" when it comes to its rate of sexual assaults. "Clearly this is not ideal, but at the same time, we don't have anything to hide here," Engen said. "If we had pervasive problems, I would know about them."

80 reported rapes in three years is, indeed, on par with national averages for college towns of Missoula's size. "This is a problem that every college campus in America experiences, every community experiences at some level, so it's not unique to the University of Montana," UM president Royce C. Engstrom said at a sexual assault forum earlier this year. Even Elizabeth Hubble, Co-Director of Women's and Gender Studies at the university, said the media attention was frustrating, although beneficial in terms of garnering more support for advocacy work. "I think we are getting a lot of publicity right now for something that is not really an aberration," she told me. The community is equally displeased with the newfound infamy; "The Rape Capital of America is not the slogan we want for Missoula," one commenter recently wrote on a local blog.

If the situation in Missoula is not atypical, what prompted the headline-making federal investigation? Why do residents say they're being bombarded with calls from the New York Times, CNN, and Anderson Cooper? Why did Engstrom fire head football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O'Day in March, right after the Grizzlies had won the Big Sky Conference title — at which point Mr. Pflugrad was named the conference's coach of the year — without comment?

When I heard that Nick, my friend's younger brother, was planning a trip back to Missoula, I asked him to take me along because I, too, was curious: Why Missoula?

***

Missoulians describe their 24 square mile city as "idyllic," a liberal enclave in an otherwise red state. A giant peace sign is carved into one of the many grassy mountains that surround the downtown area, and a large "M," lit each fall during the university's annual homecoming celebration, sits on another. 1992's Oscar-winning film A River Runs Through It was filmed nearby, and a river does, indeed, run through the center of the town, which is filled with a funny mixture of football fans and hippies. The kids I'm staying with — Nick's friends from his past life as a drug-dealing UM dropout — are mostly UM seniors and live in a dilapidated three-story house with an untended backyard, two cheerful dogs, and an endless parade of friends streaming in and out of the always-unlocked doors. They smoke a lot of weed and own a lot of guns. When I admit I don't have any friends who own guns, one girl tells me that's "literally the funniest thing" she's ever heard.

Nearly everyone I meet in Missoula — on porches, at coffee shops, in bars — agrees on three points. The first is that the city's police force is a joke, ill-equipped to deal with the heavy interstate narcotics flow (the federal government has officially designated the area as a "high intensity drug trafficking area"), drunk driving (even the head of the student health center has a DUI under his belt), and — yes — sexual assaults that occur on a regular basis. The second point is that rape is very bad. And the third is that the girls in Missoula are the type who "make shit up for attention." Girls "cry rape" in Missoula, say the girls of Missoula, who are often quicker to blame "sluts" for getting themselves into sketchy situations than are guys. I'm told over and over again that, thanks to the allegations that have surfaced over the past few months, more and more girls are blaming their post-hookup shame on the guys they — in the minds of so many of the Missoulians I meet — happily and carelessly took home the night before.

My chief goal during my four days in Missoula is to blend in. I tell people I'm a reporter, of course, but I don't mention the fact that I'm also a feminist unless specifically prompted. I do this because I want people to feel comfortable speaking honestly around me; I don't want anyone to think I'm judging them. But, at times, the victim-blaming and slut-shaming is so overwhelming that I can't help referencing statistics, such as: 54 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to the police. Only about six percent of rape reports are false, about the same rate as other crimes. About 25 percent of women are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during their college years. Roughly 90 percent of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape know their assailant, and these "date-rapists" are just as likely to be serial offenders as the "jump-out-of-the-bushes" stranger variety.

Everyone looks at me, the reporter from Manhattan who has never shot a gun, like I have no idea what I'm talking about.

"I think a lot of the sexual assaults are pretty fucking legit except for there are a lot of really slutty girls here who want to get with a lot of people and then they want to claim rape," Rachel, a UM senior and one of Nick's friends, tells me while smoking a bowl at her kitchen table and shuffling a deck of cards. "That sounds horrible, but it's true, because I know a lot of girls like that." She tells me, matter-of-factly, about a friend of hers who got wasted one night and invited a guy back home with her who ended up stealing her car. She filed a police report claiming that he had raped her, too, but Rachel thinks it's just because she was pissed about the car. "I mean, I wasn't there, but I don't know. I don't think she was raped." Shuffle. "They call it the ‘Zoo' here because we party like animals. A lot of girls don't know their limits."

Most people I speak with struggle to differentiate between drunk sex and drunk sexual assault. They're unable to parrot the politically correct buzzwords they think they should say ("no is no") without adding a caveat or two ("but girls here are attention whores.") For example, everyone agrees that, in the words of a man I meet under the disconcertingly fluorescent lighting at a divey sports bar called Missoula Club, football players in particular "don't need to rape to get fucked." This is despite the fact that at least six of the school's football players were involved in the cases currently being investigated by the federal probe.

I am dying to meet some football players, and ask everyone I meet if they can help that happen. A few people try, but their Griz friends never text back once they hear there's a reporter in town. "Go to Stockman's" is their next best suggestion. I actually start tallying the number of people who tell me to go to Stockman's if I want to get roofied or raped. (Also, bizarrely, most people I meet, both guys and girls, claim to have been roofied in Missoula at some point.) The one unabashed Stockman's fan I meet tells me it's the best late-night bar because "everyone is so wasted at Stock's that anything can happen. Everyone is wasted, dancing, and it's the perfect excuse to flirt with the people you've seen in class all semester." But I lose count of those who call it the "creep bar," or the "date-rape bar," or the bar that's impossible to leave without getting groped at least once. These are often the same people who say girls in Missoula are "well, kind of asking for it."

***

I don't meet any football players on Saturday night, but I meet Tori, a peppy UM sophomore who tells me she is "best, best friends" with the guys on the team. We start chatting when I ask her why she and her friends are wearing moustaches and men's undershirts. "It's Cinco de Mayo," she reminds me. "We're Cholas!" We plan to meet for coffee the next day because everyone is too wasted to speak coherently about Missoula's least favorite subject, although one guy — who says he's "not the right person to ask" about rape because he's "a good guy" — does tell me that girls are confusing. "For example," he slurs, "Lots of times girls have invited me over to watch a movie, saying ‘nothing will happen,' and then I've pounded them."

The next day, Tori is hungover but full of energy, and insists on buying me coffee because I'm "a guest." We talk for a while about the alleged football team gang-rape; she knows the details because she's "on and off" with one of the players who was involved and recorded the whole thing on his phone, "because guys are like that." She tells it like this: two best girlfriends got drunk with the team and took turns going around in a circle and giving the players blowjobs. One of the girls also had sex with one of the football players that night, and when her boyfriend caught wind of the affair, she said it was non-consensual. He convinced her to file a police report, but the County Attorney's Office decided not to prosecute, citing a lack of evidence. Tori thinks that's because her friend showed them the video, which depicted the girl excited and laughing. "In other words," Tori says, "She was into it." The girl went to the college administration next, and thanks to the OCR's recently enacted "Dear Colleague" letter, which lowers the standard of proof on campus for sex charges within the rubric of Title IX, got him kicked off the team and possibly expelled.

"We're in college," Tori says. "People do stupid stuff. If girls keep lying, everyone's going to think Missoula is the town that "cried rape." She offers to connect me with her Griz friends, but sends me an apologetic text the next day saying that the coach forbade the players to talk to the media. "They never want to talk about the rape charges," she had told me earlier. "We have a rule: Don't bring it up unless they bring it up with you."

Sitting there, listening to Tori's earnest account of the reckless party girl who may have cost the well-meaning, good-times-having football player his career, I can't help but think that this is not an inconceivable scenario. I hate myself for it. But this is obviously the problem with allegations of sexual assault: no one but the alleged attacker and victim know exactly what transpired — and that's assuming that both parties were sober enough to remember at all. When the person recounting the events seems to genuinely believe in what she's saying, it's hard to remember my beloved statistics. In Missoula, I'm learning, drunk guys who may have "made mistakes" nearly always get the benefit of the doubt. Drunk girls, however, do not.

***

UM senior Kerry Barrett is one of those drunk girls, as well as the first student I meet that will let me use her real name; she's become somewhat of the poster child for Missoula's burgeoning anti-rape movement ever since she approached the city's local paper, the Missoulian, as a last resort after she was told by police that her sexual assault allegations, along with those of her close friend, lacked enough evidence to press charges. We meet at Break Espresso where Kerry, who is slight and spunky and clearly used to rattling off the details of her story, is studying for finals. It goes like this: Last September, Kerry hit it off with Gabe Downey, a recent transfer student, at a bar called Sean Kelly's. The two walked back to Gabe's apartment, but Kerry told him she didn't intend to sleep with him before they walked through his front door. "I'm a good guy," Gabe told her. "Sleep over and I'll drive you home in the morning." Kerry, drunk but not wasted, acquiesced.

Kerry says she fell asleep with her clothes on and woke up at around 5 a.m. with her pants down to her ankles and a heavy body on top of her. When she pushed Gabe off, he lunged at her again. Kerry ran out of the apartment and straight to the police station to report the attack — since her dad is a retired lieutenant, she never doubted that was the first place to go. Imagine her surprise when a policeman asked her if she had a boyfriend right off the bat. "Sometimes girls sleep around and then regret it," the cop said when she told him she did not.

The next few weeks were even more frustrating for Kerry. The detective assigned to her case canceled meetings, failed to call her back, and told Kerry "not to expect much." After interviewing a tearful Gabe, the detective concluded he was so distraught that he was possibly suicidal. "I was like, great, I'm glad you're so concerned about his well-being," Kerry said. When she asked Police Chief Muir why it mattered if she had a boyfriend, he told her that most rape reports are false. After she argued that, in fact, generally accepted data suggests only about six percent are indeed false, Muir emailed her a dubious 2009 report from The Forensic Examiner supporting his claims. "I guess I just didn't want you to think I was just pulling stuff out of thin air," he wrote.

Lacking any semblance of support, Kerry gave up trying to press charges. But shortly after Kerry went home with Gabe, her close friend was raped by a UM freshman who followed her into her dorm from the parking lot. Video surveillance shows the student following her into the building and then walking out alone 40 minutes later, carrying her pants, which he inexplicably stole. Afterwards, there were blood stains not only on her bedding but on her mattress, causing officials to ask if the girl had her period. She did not. Like Kerry, her friend was told that her case lacked sufficient evidence.

Kerry convinced her friend to take her case to the university, which ultimately expelled her alleged assailant – much to the chagrin of then-Chief Deputy County Attorney Kirsten Pabst LaCroix, who came to the academic hearing to testify on behalf of the student. LaCroix later told the Missoulian that, while she wouldn't comment on the hearing, "when we file sex charges against someone, it's going to ruin their life. Filing charges rings a bell that cannot be unrung."

Kerry's friend dropped out of school shortly after the incident. Kerry often sees Gabe walking around campus, and wonders if he's tried to attack other girls he's met on the weekends. "The only reason he didn't rape me is because I woke up," she believes.

***

Back at home base, I tell Nick's friends about Kerry's ordeal. They admit it sounds legit – "If she's telling the truth and she wasn't just blacked out" – and are horrified by her friend's more obviously unwarranted trauma. They tell me those girls are totally different than the attention-seekers, like Ali, a UM senior who recently wrote an editorial for the campus paper about being raped twice during her time at the university.

"By putting my name on this story, I worry people might not accept it. I have a reputation of, well, being drunkenly promiscuous," the article begins. Her story of being raped twice – once by the friend of a close friend, to whom she lost her virginity, and then to the best friend of an ex-boyfriend – is honest and harrowing:

I asked him to get off me. He said just a little bit more.
I asked to put my underwear back on. He kept going.
I don't remember what happened next. He wasn't wearing a condom and I wasn't on the Pill. I got out of his bed because it was just too awkward to stay.

Ali, who didn't realize she had been raped until she sought out counseling at the university health center, argues that so many rapes go unreported because victims want everything to "stay the same":

Female victims are afraid of hearing what others might think of them if the word gets out. We'd rather blame ourselves for the situation than believe our ‘friends' could ever do something like this to us. We'll shoulder the responsibility, chalk it up to a wild drunken adventure or just a bad night all around, and then forget about it. Pretend like we meant to do it so it becomes a part of our character. It lowers our self-esteem. We think we're only worth guys who treat us like that.

"I just don't think that's rape," one of Nick's friends says of Ali's story. "I mean, the guy was definitely pushing too hard, but is that rape?" Another, who vaguely knows her from class, says she seems like "she just wants attention."

Here's the funny thing: Ali and I spent two hours together on Saturday morning, eating breakfast burritos and having what I thought was a successful, important conversation. Twelve hours later, she sent me a stream of long, apologetic texts begging me not to quote from her interview because she didn't want to draw more attention to herself. "Please please please don't use anything I said yesterday," she wrote. "Once again, I am sorry."

***

Why are policemen and coeds alike so fixated on weeding out fake rape accusations instead of weeding out rapists? Is it possible that the federal probe will help dispel the myth of the girl who cried rape? Cynthia Wolken, the City Councilor who first initiated a hearing when the stories first broke, is hopeful that it will. "The response from our largely male leadership has been somewhat tone deaf," she told me. "That makes women less likely to come forward and report sexual assault. Who wants to report if no one is going to believe you?" But will the investigation stop Engstrom from writing more editorials, as he did in December after the first allegations came to light, on how to avoid being a victim but not how to avoid being a rapist? Will it stop Missoulians from calling Stockman's the "roofie" bar? Will it stop football players from making "mistakes"?

I genuinely like Missoula, and I genuinely like Nick's friends, so I try not to argue with them about, say, pervasive gender stereotypes or victim-blaming. But one evening at Nick's friends' house, after a long day at an outdoor beer fest and before the group is ready to go get wasted at the bars, I get into an argument with a very drunk and emphatic UM undergrad.

"The guys are rapists, but the girls want to get fucked," she says, over and over again.

I try to tell her that statistics say –

"I don't give a fuck about your statistics," she says, pounding the table for emphasis. "Things are different in Missoula. I'm not saying they're not rapists. But the girls help it along."

But things are not different in Missoula.

Hopefully, the federal investigation will help the university and the city more effectively report sexual assaults in tandem — the lack of communication between the two has been a huge barrier over the past few years — and more rapists will be held responsible for their actions. Maybe, next year, a man who attempts to rape a woman while she sleeps won't be able to casually cross her path months later. But a federal probe won't stop the Alis of Missoula — and of the country — from being viciously shamed, or the Toris from idolizing and defending the high-status "good guys" on campus without a second thought.

It's easier to think of rape as the nasty collateral damage that comes with binge drinking and progressive female sexuality than it is to come to terms with the fact that rapists live among us — despite research that proves over and over again that they do.

As its citizens claim, Missoula is just like any other college town. What is happening in Missoula can — and is — happening all around us.

*Some names have been changed.

Special thanks to Gwen Florio, whose fantastic coverage for the Missoulian was extremely helpful.

Image via trekandshoot/Shutterstock