At a time when University of Wisconsin-Madison students are demanding more vigorous responses by officials to sexual assaults, the case of Alec Cook is drawing national attention.
Cook was charged Thursday with 11 counts of sexual assault involving alleged assaults of five women. National reports quoted from the Wisconsin State Journal, WKOW, and UW-Madison campus newspapers about the details of the incidents.
As multiple accusers came forward, UW-Madison officials took the extraordinary step of suspending Cook and banning him from campus before the completion of disciplinary or criminal proceedings.
Some activists suggest that reports on Cook’s alleged activities expose a culture that excuses sexual aggression, allowing behavior like that of which he is accused go unchallenged for months.
Cook’s lawyer, Chris Van Wagner, has said his client is being tried and convicted in the media. All the sexual activity was consensual or never occurred, Van Wagner said.
“There’s nothing to support the monster that exists in the mind of all the people of UW-Madison … there’s no serial stalker, there’s no serial rapist,” Van Wagner told a crowd of reporters after Cook appeared in Dane County Court Thursday.
The alleged assaults took place between March 2015 and October and he was jailed on $200,000 bond.
Cook, a junior business major from Edina, Minnesota, an affluent Minneapolis suburb, reportedly met female UW students in class, on campus or online. Cook’s fraternity at UW, Phi Delta Theta, announced they “separated” from him in a press release, but it’s unclear when he left the group.
In the first case leading to criminal charges in Madison, a woman told police she was forced into sex by Cook after she went to his apartment early on Oct. 13 following dinner and a study date at a campus library.
The woman told police that Cook forcefully assaulted her several times and would not let her leave. After she got home, the woman texted her brother that she couldn’t get her phone or get to the door because Cook held her in a “death grip.” She added: “I don’t feel like I was assaulted...I don’t think. But I feel very weird.”
She notified police a few days later.
News reports on that alleged attack encouraged another woman to come forward. She alleged Cook assaulted her after a date during which she believed she was drugged.
"I didn’t want to ruin his life,” the woman told police, according to a criminal complaint. “I felt ashamed to tell anyone, because I thought it would make him look bad. I saw the news story and was empowered by another girl being able to tell what happened to her, that I thought I could finally tell."
Cook also is accused of repeatedly sexually touching another woman in a ballroom dance class.
Police reported that they confiscated journals from his Henry Street apartment, in which he allegedly wrote of grooming potential victims, detailed stalking-like behavior, listed what he desired about particular women and noted what he wanted to do to them.
An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Cook played rugby at Edina High School, where he graduated in 2014. In an online school bio, Cook wrote that after attending UW-Madison, he intended to study at Yale and eventually become an astronaut.
Cook was featured in the school newspaper in February of his senior year and portrayed as an outgoing fellow who often roamed the halls strumming his guitar, the Star Tribune reported.
“I was bored (in music class) so I just started walking around with the guitar,” he said. “Usually, the teachers find it really funny.”
Along with music, Cook told the newspaper that his main influences are “the Christian God, number one. And then probably Satan as number two, because without Satan, God would have nothing to do.”
UW-Madison, like more than 150 other college campuses across the country, is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of sexual assault reports. In 2011, authorities cracked down on institutions receiving federal funding after decades of national evidence that reports of sex assault on campus were sometimes ignored.
UW-Madison officials launched renewed efforts to prevent and prosecute sexual assault after a 2015 survey showing rates slightly higher than the national average. On Oct. 21, in a message to the campus community, Dean of Students Lori Berquam announced Cook’s emergency suspension and added: “Sexual violence is unacceptable in our campus and community. I’m absolutely committed to the safety and well-being of our students, as well as transparency and communication about these topics.”
Leaders of the student organization Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment, or PAVE, said in a statement Thursday that some of the reported circumstances of the Cook case fit in with well-known patterns of sexual violence.
“We challenge the current cultural norms and the ideas that encourage and allow for multiple forms of sexual violence,” they wrote.
“Sexual violence is a community issue. Over 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted during their college careers at UW Madison,” according to a 2015 survey, PAVE said.
Some 90 percent of rapes are acquaintance rape, the statement said, adding: “Research shows that the majority of non-stranger rapists are serial offenders who will rape repeatedly, and engage in other sorts of interpersonal violence. Such ‘undetected rapists’ target and groom prospective victims, using fear and coercion as tools.”
Many sexual assault cases go unreported due to trauma, fear of becoming re-victimized, or not being believed, the student activists wrote.
“Survivors are more likely to come forward when a case exists against a perpetrator because they feel more supported by the legal system and feel they are more likely to be believed,” they said.
The issue goes beyond university official responses to sexual assault incidents on campus, student Yusra Murad wrote in an op-ed for the Badger Herald.
Recounting what she described as her own brief encounter with Cook, in which he admonished her to “smile,” Murad connected events at UW-Madison to a national debate on rape culture.
She noted the now infamous 2005 video of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump crudely bragging about sexually assaulting women, “proclaiming ownership of our bodies and sexuality.”
The video sparked a nationwide conversation on rape culture and "has led prominent politicians to revoke their endorsements, repeal their support and speak out on a national sexual assault epidemic which is perpetuated by this very sort of 'locker room talk,'" Murad wrote.
Erin Thornley-Parisi, executive director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, told The Daily Beast that media coverage of sexual assault allegations against Trump and actor and comedian Bill Cosby might have empowered Cook’s accusers.
“It’s so, so prevalent in the news right now that it’s possible that women are just feeling like, ‘People are going to have my back on this,’” Thornley-Parisi said.
“If somebody knows something about this (the Cook allegations), whether they have been a victim or know somebody, it can be helpful to police and to the prevention of further sexual assaults,” she added.
Murad wrote in the Herald that rape culture will prevail so long as women — not men — are forced to answer for it.
“So the fact that we can finally see men squirming under the weight of their own wrongdoings is a well-deserved breath of fresh air.
“Women are watching, standing, refusing to be seated and refusing to be silenced,” she said.