What took Bill Cosby decades to be accused of, Alec Cook of the University of Wisconsin may now come to personify – the persistent, self-justifying serial rapist.
The sum of the accusations against Donald Trump regarding women and potential assaults do not even begin to approach Cook’s level of planned depravity.
Brock Turner’s sentencing turned him into this year’s first personification of what many refer to as a “rape culture.” Turner’s short sentence evoked a sense of outrage. Outrage, however, has a short shelf live. It needs replenishment with new material. Enter Mr. Cook.
Cook’s catalog of planned assaults embodies a central myth in the idea of an all-pervasive campus rape culture – that there exists on every college campus a dormant serial rapist just waiting for the right time and conditions to stealthily victimize an entire community. Despite the central role such potential rapists play in the mythology surrounding campus sexual assaults, in fact they are rare. By helping perpetuate the “hidden predator” myth, Cook fulfills a scripted role. His is the story which campus advocacy groups have warned about.
Unfortunately, Cook’s very existence may set back the cause of confronting campus sexual assaults for years. Cook’s existence gives credence to programs aimed at helping campuses deal with these mythical serial rapists – and, sadly, provides yet another excuse for not confronting the real epidemic – acquaintance or date rape, assaults which happen between two people who know one another and, prior to the occurrence of the act, considered themselves to be friends or more.
For the past few years colleges and universities across America have been striving to get their communities to adopt a sexual behavior culture centered on the concept of “affirmative consent” – the idea that only yes means yes, and that the absence of a no does not imply yes. Our students are being taught that they need explicit permission for each and every activity, and that the absence of such explicit permission implies that an assault occurred.
Clearly what Cook did (or stands accused of), what Brock Turner did, what the Donald stands accused of (but on video bragged about) is the very opposite of interactions which occurred with “consent.”
By definition, an assault is an action taken against another person without their consent. But, outside of various S&M practices, consent itself is the wrong word to describe what we wish to see as a precondition for sexual activity. Sexual activity is generally not about permission; it is about mutuality. In fact, using the language of "consent" as the basis for conversation can create more problems than solutions. Cook’s embodiment of an inaccurate myth may now only increase our confusion.
What we really want as a precondition to sexual activity is mutual agreement (the legal term is licensure), respect for one another (neither person is viewed or treated by the other as an object), and a commitment to respect whatever boundaries the other person may assert as the activity occurs.
These phrases cannot be summarized or symbolized by the word “consent.” Consent is about granting another permission to do something to you or on your behalf. The very concept of “with” is missing.
We engage in sexual activity with another person. It is NOT something we do to them. The difference is critical. Mr. Cook’s depraved embodiment of the “hidden rapist” myth may encourage a disconnect that continues to put countless potential victims at risk.
Affirmative consent as a standard uses language which treats every sexual encounter as a potential assault. It essentially demands that students use explicit language to convey the notion that it is okay to have something done to them by another. Since the participants (the students) do not usually conceive of sex as a form of assault, the required language is confusing at best. And, the current legal climate surrounding what are known as Title IX investigations means that colleges are insisting on explicitness. Unfortunately, while the idea of being explicit about permission to mutually commit assault does not resonate with how students see each other or their activity, it does match perfectly how Cook, Cosby, Trump, and Turner describe their encounters.
The language which affirmative consent standards insist upon is language for perps. It is NOT language which conveys mutuality or respect. It conveys “assault.” No wonder students are confused.
Many affirmative consent advocates cite disproven research published by a David Lisak (no relation). Lisak’s published work suggests that the vast majority of rapes on college campuses are committed by perps such as Mr. Cook – the stealth serial rapist who carefully plans each attack and targets victims. BUT, Lisak’s work was not based on any kind of reliable research methodology; it was an amalgam of data from multiple studies NONE of which were about sexual assaults on college campuses. It relied on self-reporting by males who happened to be passing through an urban setting on a given day (with no effort being made to identify those respondents as college students). The results have not been replicated despite numerous attempts, and the sample used was not representative. Claimed follow-up studies have never been published, and many doubt they ever existed. Our nation’s policies have been held captive by a work which cannot meet basic social science standards. Lisak’s results are highly cited – which seems to convey legitimacy – but they are very wrong.
This incorrect myth is convenient. It tells the story which many assault prevention experts and survivor advocates want to believe. The campus can be made safer through education and awareness. If most assaults are done by hidden serial rapists, the “solution” is to find these perps and remove them from the community. Victims should need little encouragement to report attacks by perps. If the authorities can identify and stop these unique individuals, the campus would be so much safer.
The truth is much harder to deal with. Cook is a rare exception.
The vast majority of sexual assaults happen amongst acquaintances – usually in the former of boundaries not being respected, perceived, or understood. What may begin as a mutual activity (with one another), slips into non-consensual assault (an act done to the other). Students are sometimes reluctant to report their “perp” because they still view that person as their friend or lover. There does not appear to be black and white. Lisak’s published work provides little guidance.
Worse, in relying on conclusions they believe to be supported by Lisak’s published work, colleges are relying on a study that has been debunked. The study is relied upon because it’s conclusions match a “truthy” which too many sexual assault prevention and survivor advocates want to believe to be true. Acquaintance rape is hard to sort out. The issues are messy. The idea of the serial rapist such as Mr. Cook is a respite from the messiness. Mr. Cook and his ilk are evil. Acquaintance rape, however, starts from a different place.
Title IX issues cannot be meaningfully dealt with if colleges rely on the idea that they need to weed out their hidden Alec Cooks. Educating the community to be on the look out for such people, and to intervene if you might think they are about to lead someone astray, is a waste of resources. It is dealing with the problem the administration wishes it had, and not with the problem at hand. Citing Mr. Cook as evidence of this “stealth problem” will just make an already bad situation worse.
The language of consent itself must change. To demand that students use words and concepts which treat sexual activity as assault is creating the wrong ideational world. It adds to the confusion.
We want our students (and everyone else) to act out of mutuality and with respect. Those words or something like them is what we need. The standard should be are we acting with respectful mutuality, not did I give you explicit permission.
Consent is what Cook, Cosby, Trump, and Turner thought they perceived they had --- whether, by hubris, the blindness of narcissism, or the self-proclaimed power of omniscience. But, even if they perceived consent, there was nothing mutual, and there was no respect.
Consent language is about perps. Our students are not perps.
Consent language creates the wrong mental context and sets forth a presumption that sexual activities begin with guilt for intended acts – guilt to be absolved through the granting of consent.
It is time to use new words.
Full Disclosure: I am the executive director of Empowering Victims, a 501(c)(3) non-profit which works to assist the victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and bullying through technology. The opinions above are the result of two years dedicated efforts at trying to help end the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses. See http://empoweringvictims.org for more information.