In mid-October, a woman in Madison, Wisconsin, reported a sexual assault to local law enforcement. In her police report, the 20-year-old victim alleged that Alec Cook, a student at the University of Wisconsin, attacked her in his apartment on Oct. 12, strangling her "until she eventually stopped fighting and he took it as permission," according to CBS. Over the course of two hours, Cook raped her again and again.
As it turns out, this woman wasn't Cook's only victim — far from it. After police arrested him, similar stories began trickling in, the police report expanding to include testimony from two other women, one alleging sexual assault in February and the other saying Cook attacked her in 2015.
"I saw the news story and was empowered by another girl being able to tell what happened to her, that I thought I could now finally tell," the second woman to come forward told a detective, according to the police report.
Cook, a junior and a business major, has now been accused by dozens of women, the New York Times reported. Currently, police have charged him with four counts of second-degree sexual assault, but Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne expects Cook will face 34 charges all together, according to CBS.
The University of Wisconsin issued a statement on Wednesday explaining that Cook had been placed under "emergency suspension" and banned from campus. The administration, meanwhile, was "shocked and saddened" by the serial assaults.
By any measure, it's sad news — partially because it's not particularly shocking. This snowball effect in sexual assault reporting is a pattern that's become increasingly visible over the past few years.
In recent weeks, we've watched as one woman after another accused Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump of transgressions spanning the sexual misconduct spectrum — everything from verbal harassment to rape.
It's the same thing we saw in 2005, when Bill Cosby's former protégée Andrea Constand accused Cosby of having drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2004. Constand's lawsuit inspired fellow Cosby victim Tamara Green to tell her story on the Today Show:
I heard that there had been a sexual assault, and that by itself didn't prompt me to come forward, but then I heard that this woman had been given pills, was in a position of trust and friendship with this man, and that behind the pills he took her clothes off and groped her and what have you. I thought, you know, after all these years, it's the same M.O. The same old story, and I still didn't come forward.
As it turned out, it wasn't just two: 12 Jane Does added their accounts to Constand's, and one decade later, 35 other women sat down with New York magazine to share their memories of being sexually abused by Cosby.
Here's where the misunderstanding comes in: While it makes intuitive sense that one victim's story would gain strength from unsolicited, added testimony from other victims, the opposite is often true. People who would rather disbelieve the allegations prefer to view a situation like Trump's, for example, as sort of a Salem witch trial scenario, in which one unfounded accusation empowers another and another and another after that. Trump, of course, has called his many accusers liars and threatened to sue them. Many of his supporters insist that the women are opportunistic fabricators after his money and a moment of fame.
The snowballing accusations against Cook, like those against Trump and Cosby, have coaxed forward a number of victims whose experiences are now years in the past. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Cook's attorney Christopher Van Wagner the delay in reporting presented a "great deal of proof problems for the state."
It really shouldn't, though: There are a number of reasons why a woman might sit on a sexual assault report for weeks, months, even years, according to Lindsey Pratt, a New York City psychotherapist who specializes in treating sexual trauma.
"Their safety has been completely violated, so their gut reaction is not going to be to press charges, it's probably going to be to completely retreat from the world," Pratt explained in a phone interview on Thursday. "They're not going to want to press charges right away, see their name in headlines and then face their attacker in court."
"Objectively, how many of us are able to look our fears dead in the eye after something terrible happens?" Pratt added.
Instead, she said, rape victims are more likely to attend to personal concerns: How to tell their families, how to get the right medical attention, how to ensure their safety — because, Pratt noted, many women who are sexually assaulted (90%, according to the National Institute of Justice's count) know their attacker. And, above all, survivors are focused on how to keep their lives on track. They fear retribution, she explained, and that fear can linger for years. For many victims, said Pratt, "the thought of pressing charges is synonymous with, 'My life will become more derailed than it already is.'" And so they say nothing.
There's also the problem of victim blaming. Not only do people become suspect when a victim waits for any extended period of time to tell their story, they become skeptical when there was alcohol involved or when they learn the victim had a sexual history. Victim blaming cultivates a fear of being called a liar, which Pratt called "salt in the deepest wound a person could experience." Asking a victim to come forward immediately after an assault takes place is a "tall order," Pratt said. There's every reason not to do it.
That might change when a victim hears their story come from another's mouth. If there's "shame in feeling isolated in what happened," Pratt said, there's also safety in numbers.
"The stigma in our society against sharing stories of abuse is really strong and finally acquiring that feeling of normalcy — like, I'm not alone in this — cold be a comfort and a kind of shield against what people may say if a survivor was to share their story alone," she continued.
They might see a parity in behavior — an M.O., as Green put it. That raises the possibility that added testimony could help prove a pattern. "Beyond the stigma," Pratt said, "I think there's hope that coming forward with other survivors would actually help justice be served. It's kind of a strength in numbers thing: Maybe if I tell my story and she tells hers, maybe something will come of this; maybe if I'm not the only one who shares my story, people will actually believe us."
In Cook's case, it's hard to discount so much testimony from so many victims, especially after investigators uncovered his little black book while searching his apartment. In it, Cook detailed the alluring features in women he met, describing what he wanted to do with them — which, according to the New York Times, sometimes meant murder. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Cook should be formally charged Thursday, with as many as 30 criminal counts for his serial sexual misconduct.
Editor's note: For information about sexual assault or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1 (800) 656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.