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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Acquaintance rape and its repercussions are the main subjects treated in Missoula. More than ninety percent of all rapes in the United States take place between individuals who are acquainted in some way. The physical and emotional impact of acquaintance rape on its victims, moreover, is no less severe than the impact of those few violent rapes carried out by masked strangers. Krakauer focuses on the repercussions of non-stranger rape in Missoula because, despite its prevalence, this is the kind of rape most likely to be misunderstood and ignored.
Krakauer argues that rape is not an isolated crime that affects one or two individuals. Every rape affects many people and can have a detrimental influence on a large community. A majority of rapes in a community are carried out by a very small percentage of men. When a rapist goes unpunished, then, he is very likely to rape again. Meanwhile, rape victims are likely candidates for post-traumatic stress, a psychological disorder marked by extreme anxiety and an inability to experience pleasure. It causes some of Krakauer’s subjects to drop out of school or change their education plans. Some become activists for victims’ rights. None of the victims of sexual assault in the book go unchanged by their experience. They require tremendous support from family members, friends, and victim advocates, as well as from their educational institutions, law enforcement officials, and public prosecutors. Because law enforcement officials and public prosecutors especially fail to understand or appreciate the gravity of acquaintance rape, Krakauer argues that they exacerbate the damage rape causes to its victims and the consequences of rape on society.
In the United States, only about six to twelve percent of rapes are reported to the police. Krakauer show how those few victims who do report their rapes are disrespected, questioned, and doubted by responding officers. Officers often believe common rape myths. After Kelsey Belnap is gang raped by four men, for example, Detectives Mark Blood and Guy Baker suggest to her that she is only feeling guilt for cheating on her boyfriend. When Kerry Barrett reports to the police that she has been sexually assaulted by an acquaintance in his apartment, an officer at the station asks her what she really expects to come of her report. Then, to add insult to injury, when alleged rapists are called in for questioning, detectives often treat them with sympathy and assure them that they have nothing to worry about.
After rapes are reported and the police have gathered evidence, prosecutors in the Missoula County Attorney’s Office act with self-interest. Because rape cases are difficult to win, Krakauer argues, prosecutors very rarely take them to court. For the small minority of rapists who are taken to court, the standard of evidence—“beyond a reasonable doubt”— required for jurors to convict them is quite high. The physical evidence of sexual assault often looks very similar to the physical evidence of consensual sex, so trials become about the victim versus the rapist’s word. Defense attorneys smear the reputations of rape victims to make their word seem unreliable. Trial court also requires victims to relive and repeat their trauma over and over again, a process that can be detrimental for their recovery. Most trials result in the rapist’s acquittal and the victim is forced to reenact her trauma with no result. Even when a rapist pleads guilty, like Beau Donaldson, he usually faces a relatively light sentence, especially in light of his victim’s suffering and grief.