When rapists don’t see it as rape

Brian Banks was one of America’s best high school football players when, in 2002, at age 16, he was accused of rape.

The accuser, Wanetta Gibson, said Banks had forced her into a stairway at their high school in California and raped her.

Expelled from school and then later convicted of rape, Banks served more than five years in prison. He became not a professional football star but a registered sex offender.

Then, in 2011, Gibson recanted. There was no rape (apparently she made the accusation to prevent her mom from learning that she had been sexually active). Banks was eventually exonerated and his conviction overturned, and, at 28, he played briefly for the Atlanta Falcons. But, after a decade away from football, it was too late to catch up.

That kind of nightmare is what many Americans have in mind when they fear an aggressive clampdown on sexual violence. It’s a legitimate fear.

Jon Krakauer tells the story of Brian Banks in his terrific new book, “Missoula,” as a cautionary reminder. Yet, in his book about acquaintance rapes in a college town, he also makes clear that what is far more common is another kind of injustice: perpetrators of rape who get away with it again and again.

One careful study found that false allegations make up between 2 and 10 percent of rape cases. Yet victims (mostly women and girls, but also men and boys) are routinely tarnished or blamed; Human Rights Watch reported this month that nearly two-thirds of members of the military who report sexual assaults face reprisals. Given the risks, the great majority of rape cases are never reported to the authorities.

The result is impunity. And that fosters more rape.

Scholars have found that many sexual assaults are carried out by a small number of men who strike repeatedly – often without realizing that they are rapists.

The way this research is conducted is astonishing: Men were simply surveyed and asked whether they had ever had sex with someone who didn’t want to. Remarkably, men repeatedly said, yes, they had.

One of the most chilling sections of Krakauer’s book quotes a fraternity brother, “Frank,” describing his technique to a researcher, David Lisak:

“We’d be on the lookout for the good-looking girls, especially the freshmen, the really young ones. They were the easiest. … Then we’d get them drinking right away. … They’d be guzzling it, you know, because they were freshmen, kind of nervous.”

“Frank” recounted how he targeted one young woman, plied her with alcohol-spiked punch, and then led her to a bed. “At some point, she started saying things like … ‘I don’t want to do this right away,' or something like that. I just kept working on her clothes … and she started squirming. But that actually helped, because her blouse came off easier. … She tried to push me off, so I pushed her back down. … I mean, she was so plastered that she probably didn’t know what was going on, anyway. I don’t know, maybe that’s why she started pushing on me. But, you know, I just kept leaning on her, pulling off her clothes.”

“Frank” said he kept his arm across her chest, by the base of her neck, to reduce her squirming as he had sex with her. When he was finished, he dressed and returned to the party.

And the woman? “She left.”

There are no easy solutions, but one way to fight the epidemic is legal: Prosecute aggressively, while recognizing that sexual encounters are often complex, ambiguous, fueled by alcohol, and prone to he-said-she-said uncertainties.

Another way to fight back is cultural: Blunt conversations among men and women alike about consent, alcohol, and the need for friends to step up with what’s called “bystander intervention.” That means that just as you don’t let a friend drive drunk, you don’t let a friend take advantage of someone – or let a plastered friend get steered to a predator’s bed.

One of the fundamental challenges is that the word rape conjures a mental image of a stranger jumping out of bushes. Sure, that happens. But most sexual assault happens among acquaintances. We flinch at the truth that most rapists are less likely to point a gun than to proffer a plastic cup of booze, that they charm and kiss before they menace. That’s why men must be a part of these discussions, for it’s a failing of all society that men like Frank are unaware that they are rapists.

I'll encourage my (college-age) kids to read “Missoula.” And we need to have more open conversations among young men and women alike about the genuine risks of false accusations – but also about the far more common injustice of lax legal and social mores that allow predators get away with rape after rape. It’s time to stop flinching.

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.