Editorial board: In wake of the Cook case, UW campus must step up to address rampant rape culture

Believing, supporting victims differentiates this case from the rest

Jeff Miller/UW Communications

There are a lot of issues the University of Wisconsin campus community has been able to ignore. Up until mid-October, sexual assault was one of them.

Since news of 20-year-old UW student Alec Cook’s alleged sexual assaults broke, we have been forced to acknowledge the pervasive role of rape culture on this campus.

Cook was formally charged Oct. 27 with 15 counts of various charges, 11 of which were related to sexual assaults, along with two counts of strangulation and suffocation and two counts of false imprisonment.

A timeline of Alec Cook’s criminal complaints, legal proceedingsUniversity of Wisconsin student Alec Cook has been formally charged with 15 counts of multiple charges spanning from sexual assault to Read…

Since Cook’s initial arrest, increasingly horrendous details have surfaced, including the recovery of several notebooks detailing, officers said, “grooming” and “stalking” techniques for several women. One page of a notebook was released to the public, with the word “killed?” written at the top.

Cook’s case is further evidence of the prevalence of rape culture on this campus and in our community. Even though this case is exceptionally horrific, the reality is that sexual assault is quite common. Association of American Universities data released in September 2015 shows that since starting at UW, almost 28 percent of women said they were sexually assaulted.

But this time, victims have refused to be silent.  

After the first victim came forward in mid-October, four more followed, one explicitly telling investigators she felt “empowered” after learning another victim had reported to police.  

UW student arrested for sexual assaultThe Madison Police Department arrested a 20-year-old University of Wisconsin student Monday evening for multiple charges, one of which includes second degree Read…

This is the kind of campus climate we should strive to foster, one that supports rather than doubts victims. The very basis of thoroughly investigating a crime after it’s committed comes down to believing the person who reported it. If police didn’t believe someone when he or she reported a robbery, there would be no point in reporting stolen items. But the reality is other crime reports come with the benefit of the doubt — from the police and the public.

Sexual assault still isn’t one of those crimes. Victims are too often met with suspicion. But in cases like Cook’s, where victims are encouraged and met with receptivity, we must continue to support and trust them.

Unfortunately, UW has proven time and again that this support and trust for victims is not the norm on our campus. Of the 172 sexual assaults reported on campus in 2014, 87 percent were not investigated. From Jan. 1 to Dec. 4, 2015, there were 203 reports, but only 5 percent were investigated.

Of these, some were reported confidentially to University Health Services, or other resources, which the university can’t follow up on. Other reports didn’t meet the required standard of proof, as reported by The Cap Times in 2015.

While there are legitimate reasons that sexual assault cases cannot be investigated, the culture of skepticism and victim blaming will certainly influence who victims choose to report to, how investigators proceed and whether victims report at all.

In the case involving Cook, the combination of exceedingly brave victims, cooperative police departments and university administration have assured support for victims and justice for the alleged assailant. The university in particular was quick to issue a statement announcing Cook’s suspension three days after police released the first report of sexual assault.

While the narrative focuses on the atrocities of Cook’s alleged actions, let’s instead focus on the bravery of the victims who have come forward to report.

There are other women on this campus that have not received the same support we’ve given to these victims and continue to be stifled by the pervasive rape culture here.

Though we may never read other sexual assault victims’ stories or hear their names, their experiences are important, and we can foster a more positive campus climate for them by continuing to believe and encourage victims, whether they come forward or not.


This article was published Nov 3, 2016 at 7:32 am and last updated Nov 6, 2016 at 5:55 pm


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