6 Reasons Young Victims Can't Always Recognize Sexual Assault

It's an epidemic.

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Twenty-year-old college student, Alec Cook, has been charged with sexual assault of five University of Wisconsin women with "dozens" more eager to speak to the police. He is reported to have met his would-be victims in classes and parties, courted them through texts and Facebook messages, and then invited them into his apartment.

When the young women declined his sexual overtures, he allegedly detained them against their will and assaulted them, sometimes for hours. He is alleged to have grabbed them by the arms and hair and used drugs, persuasion, slaps and physical force to press them into a range of sex acts.


Cook has also been charged with the attempted strangulation or suffocation of at least two of his alleged victims. Making law enforcement's job a little easier, Cook recorded women's names and details about what he liked about each one in a black leather book that they found in his nightstand. Next to some of their names he had apparently scribbled the word "kill."

This case is remarkable because of the sheer number of alleged victims and Cook's record-keeping. However, the general pattern is unsurprising.

Eight out of ten victims of sexual assault know their assailants. College-age women are highly susceptible to sexual assault, with women of the same age who are not in college more likely to be victimized than young women in college.


Let's look at some of the reasons young women may hesitate to label what they've endured as "sexual assault," and why they may not want to go to authorities.

1. They've faced sexual coercion. 

Many young women face routine sexual pressure or coercion from their boyfriends and even from boys and men whom they do not know well. Young men who have managed to get close to a young woman may push for more, saying that everyone is doing it, that she has led him on, and that he has certain needs. A woman who has become accustomed to sexual coercion may see physically forced sex as a simple extension of this coercive behavior.

2. They've been manipulated through romance.


Some men manipulate through romantic ideas of love, with a version of "If you really loved me, you would..." or "I love you so you should..." Exposed to a lifetime of stories about charming princes and Christian Grey, young women may succumb to sexual coercion packaged in a heart-shaped wrapper, like a poison candy. And then they feel bad about themselves and fail to recognize the ways in which they were manipulated.

3. Male entitlement is real.

Whether due to inexperience or a sense of entitlement, some men pressure or force young women into sexual acts that are beyond their comfort zone — acts that the women have tried to refuse. Men who fear rejection often "take" rather than request sexual contact, regardless of the woman's stated wishes. This phenomenon is so common that it even has a name: Post-refusal persistence. Others call it "rape."

4. They've been slut-shamed.


Typically, young women are seen as the gatekeepers of sexual activity, expected to put up some kind of resistance so they will not be labeled "sluts." At the same time, young women are expected to be popular and pleasing, making it difficult for them to shout "rape," try to defend themselves physically, or contact authorities after an assault. Many young women who have been victimized keep the assaults a secret, too ashamed and hesitant to expose what they have endured to others.

5. They mistrust the system.

Dozens of women contacted the police after hearing about Cook's arrest. Prior to learning that others had accused him, each of his alleged victims was apparently struggling in isolation, perhaps not trusting that she would be believed or that the justice system would work in her favor. Recent events have heightened fear of the police.

6. Violence has been normalized for them.


One young woman described to her brother in a text that she had physically tried to break away from Alec Cook but that he held her in a "death grip" and kept physically yanking her backward as she tried to walk away. She described herself as feeling "very weird" afterward but initially wrote that she did not think she had been assaulted.

She was unable to break away and was forced to perform acts that she had refused. From pornography to music videos to Fifty Shades of Grey, popular culture glorifies sexual violence. Young women may have difficulty understanding the difference between consensual rough sex and sexual assault.

It appears that Cook's alleged assault victims voluntarily entered his apartment. Despite widespread education about sexual consent, some of them may have felt they had lost all right to protection once they had passed through his doorway.


In an echo of the accusations against Donald Trump, Alec Cook also allegedly grabbed women he barely knew and forcibly kissed them on the lips; the public face of his alleged private assaults. One can only hope that recent media attention to such lecherous and illegal behavior will help potential assailants, judges, bystanders, and juries understand the seriousness of these actions.

People who speak out bravely about their victimization help stop such serial offenders in their tracks. The conversation has begun.


Lisa Aronson Fontes Ph.D. is the author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. She is a Senior Lecturer in the University Without Walls program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and speaks all over the world on relationships, parenting, child abuse, and violence against women.


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