This last week, the New York Times and many other national and local news outlets have covered the pending 15 felony sex offense charges against a University of Wisconsin - Madison (UW) student, Alec Cook. As a graduate of UW, who personally experience rape on campus by fellow students, this case has particular importance to me. In reviewing the massive media attention to this case, one topic stood out: the fact that several victims came forward after news broke that he would be charged for raping one fellow student at his apartment. We have seen this occur in high profile cases, like the one pending against Bill Cosby. The silence of so many victims from repeat perpetrators is something our society needs to discuss and learn from to improve how we respond to sexual violence and hold offenders accountable.
Research by Dr. David Lisak on undetected, repeat rapists on campus suggests that anywhere from 6-12% of the male student population may engage in sexual violence. Roughly two-thirds of those rapists will engage in such violence repeatedly to result in an average of six victims. The reality of our criminal justice system is that it is fairly ineffective at detecting these repeat rapists until they average over 12 victims, which means many will suffer before they are taken off the streets. While there is some criticism of this research, the recent national focus on testing the backlog of rape kits shows a reality and commonality of repeat offenders. The lack of ongoing research and focus on repeat rapists continues to result in massive victimization without prompt detection from law enforcement.
One of the ways to quickly identify repeat rapists, or those with the potential to become them, is to encourage reporting by survivors. In 2000, the Bureau of Justice Statistics did some preliminary research on why female victims of campus sexual violence only reported to authorities 5% of the time. Exhibit 12 in this report lists a number of reasons, such as not wanting other people including their family to know about the incident, fear of being treated poorly by authorities, and fear that they have insufficient evidence to prove their case. Unlike many other crimes, sexual violence is a deeply personal violation of one's body that can create feelings of shame and self-blame. Add on to that centuries of legal requirements for victims to resist to their upmost in order for sexual violence to be called the crime of rape. Failure to resist sufficiently meant the victim was to blame and this has led to endless victim blaming in society as a norm.
Despite this shameful legal legacy, things have been changing recently with survivors speaking out across the country to challenge victim-blaming and shaming from society and to demand justice for sexual violence. A U.S. Department of Justice study in 2014 now shows that 20% of female victims on campus are coming forward, though this still lags behind the 32% reporting rate from female victims in the general population. Part of encouraging reporting is believing survivors and not blaming them for what happened to instead obligate those who wish to engage in sexual activity to seek consent. Leading the way on this issue are college and university campuses that promote affirmative consent policies, which have been adopted state-wide in California and New York. Such policies focus on those wishing to engage in sexual activity to require them to ensure their potential partner is willing to do so. Such a shift encourages reporting.
The shift to focus on affirmative consent is helping change societal norms. This is evidenced in the widespread condemnation of the "Trump tape" (a recording of current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump suggesting that he kisses and grabs women in the genitals first before asking for consent). Hopefully these societal changes will help us understand and accept that any sexual activity without consent is a crime so that our laws can improve over time and increase the prospect of justice for survivors in our legal systems. Then cases like that of the UW-Madison student will become less commonplace because survivors will feel supported to speak out earlier to help authorities identify perpetrators.
Laura L. Dunn, Esq.