On May 1-2, Stanford University will host “The Way Forward: Title IX Advocacy in the Trump Era,” a conference for activists and leaders from around the country to address the issues of campus sexual harassment and assault in light of new problems that have surfaced with the Trump era.
Stanford certainly deserves credit for hosting a conference in the wake of their recent campus scandals, including the case of Brock Turner, who was sentenced in June 2016 on three counts of felony sexual assault. No doubt it will be one of the more important Title IX conferences this year.
Surely, given this, Stanford would select a keynote speaker who is an empowered sexual assault survivor, a Title IX activist, or a female journalist who has dedicated her life to writing about Title IX problems? Similar conferences, for example, have had keynote speakers like Anita Hill and Laura Dunn.
But no. Instead, the organizers invited Jon Krakauer, who is none of these. To be sure, as the author of Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, a 2015 New York Times bestseller, he may seem like a good choice ― but he is in fact a harmful one.
First, there are many women who are more qualified to speak. By Krakauer’s own admission, prior to writing Missoula two years ago, he knew little about rape. As he explained in the book, “I resolved to learn what I could.” But the very publication of Krakauer’s book is evidence that he has failed to learn. As others have pointed out, if he truly wanted to understand rape, to add to the literature instead of merely regurgitating, exploiting, and attempting to dominate it, he would have ― and should have ― turned the spotlight on himself, to tell the story that he and only he can tell. How it is that a smart, white, male self-proclaimed journalist could be “so uninformed”? And how it is that, in his own words, “many of [his] acquaintances, and even several women in [his] own family [who] had been been sexually assaulted by men they trusted” also never trusted Krakauer enough to tell him what happened?
As a survivor of sexual assault, a Title IX activist, and a feminist philosopher, I am outraged that Krakauer was selected to speak instead of any one of the female activists who have dedicated their entire lives to address and work to end sexual violence. Further, if the topic of Missoula or even the broader topic of exposing university mishandling of campus sexual misconduct was the draw, why not select a journalist such as Buzzfeed’s Katie J.M. Baker, who wrote extensively about rape in Missoula before Krakauer did, and who relentlessly continues to expose and report on problems around the country?
Second, Krakauer’s irresponsible writing has had an adverse impact on thousands of the most vulnerable women and girls in the world. Through his controversial book about the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which he wrote without going to the source to fact check at the schools and villages in Pakistan, he effectively gutted the ability of CAI to continue extremely important work providing education to tens of thousands of girls in remote and severely under-resourced areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Subsequent investigations by the IRS and the Attorney General of Montana exonerated the founder of CAI, and yet Krakauer never apologized or tried to undo the harm he did to destroy the the life link and the hopes of the girls who relied on the schools. As such, his actions are anti-feminist. Feminism demands liberation, empowerment, and equality for all women. The struggle for women’s rights under the banner of feminism must address and work to eliminate oppression rooted not just in misogyny, but also in racism, colonialism, and capitalism – oppression that affects the vast majority of women.
Third, Krakauer is neither an expert on Title IX nor a journalist. He has made a living flipping from one subject to another, writing books on diverse topics that intentionally target specific individuals or groups. Granted, he unabashedly takes on sensitive topics with sensational appeal. But instead of presenting thorough research on each subject, he cherry picks facts to create narratives that are textbook cases of bad journalism — narratives constructed by deliberately avoiding details that contradict his story, and that are pieced together with little regard for universally accepted journalistic ethics such as reaching out to those whose reputations will be decimated by the story, or refraining from providing payment for information.
Did the organizers of the Stanford Title IX conference invite Krakauer because the university pressured them to find a speaker who would be un-feminist and therefore uncontroversial? If so, they succeeded in the first goal, but not the second. Conferences like these should be to heal, raise awareness, advocate, and bring about change, not to reinforce existing gender-based inequities or create controversy.
Would you want your sister, daughter or friend in a room with Krakauer to console, advise and advocate in a Title IX case? I certainly wouldn’t.
While it’s too late for Stanford to cancel Krakauer’s keynote, conference organizers and participants should demand that either Stanford or Krakauer donate his fee to student-run sexual misconduct resource centers at Stanford or UM Missoula.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.