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South side sexual assault: illuminating the city’s dark problem

By: Cameron Sidhe, Managing Editor (cenos2@uic.edu)

A vicious spate of sexual assaults, reported by The Chicago Tribune on October 11, has brought light to one of the city’s grimmest issues: violent, random attacks on citizens, ranging everywhere from armed robbery to murder, with no end in sight.

On Wednesday, October 9, three separate attacks on the South Side left four women of various ages terrified. According to the report, the assaults began around 4am in the Fernwood neighborhood when the unidentified attacker, described as a young adult black male with dreadlocks and a dark complexion, climbed atop a trashcan and into a kitchen window to assault a mother and her daughter. Holding the mother at knifepoint, he demanded she call her daughter into the room before sexually assaulting both women. After escaping, he headed to Washington Heights, entering a 16-year-old girl’s room, but was chased out of the house by the girl’s father, and the girl was uninjured. He then ran down the block and found a 14-year-old girl waiting for the bus to school; he dragged her down an alley and into a backyard to sexually assault her. The girl’s cries were heard by 15-year-old Azariah Hill and his mother, 40-year-old Marilyn Cooper, who grabbed her younger son’s scooter and ran to the backyard to fight back the attacker. While the girl was rescued from further brutalization, the man escaped.

A suspect has been arrested in the case, a 26-year-old man from Lafayette, Indiana, but has not yet been formally charged with the assaults. While his arrest may take one dangerous predator off the street, Chicago’s grisly tradition of violence and murder continues unchecked. Last year, Chicago earned the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the country, beating out New York City for the title despite having only a third of the Big Apple’s population. Anyone who receives updates from the UIC police knows that almost daily, someone is robbed or mugged around campus. Each time, the police department can offer nothing more than a few suggestions of how to prevent assault, including the eye-roll-worthy tip of not leaving the house at night. But as the recent assaults on the south side show, even that is not enough.

Sexual assault provides even further challenges in the journey toward justice for victims. The Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that as many as 97% of rapists never face jail time for their crimes for a variety of reasons, including investigator bias, evidence issues, and societal stigma. Police officers often receive only minimal training regarding sexual assault and may base their findings or determinations on stereotypes, such as that sexual assault always involves use of force and that women who were drinking, wearing provocative clothing, or had expressed interest were “asking for it” and therefore were not actually victimized. Sexual assaults may be ‘reshuffled’ in administrative categories, so that arrest and prosecution rates connected to rape do not affect the department’s overall rates and are not used in internal reviews. Philadelphia’s police department, for example, used this tactic after their excessive ‘unfounded allegation’ determinations in sexual assault cases were investigated by the FBI and the department was forced to find new ways to hide their failures to prosecute rapists.

Evidence, too, plays a role in whether rapists will be brought to justice. The standard procedure in aftermath care for sexual assault victims is to collect a rape kit, which includes biological specimen collection, careful notation of any injuries, a statement from the victim, and other evidence such as the clothes worn at the time of the attack. Unfortunately, if the victim does not immediately go to the emergency room or the police, or showers and changes clothes before doing so, a wealth of information necessary for arrest and prosecution is lost. It’s not uncommon for victims to wait for a period of time before seeking medical or criminal help, especially as some victims may not even realize that what happened to them was sexual assault. In the south side cases, it’s clear that the victims knew they were violated, but in situations such as date rape, where the victim has agreed to spend time with the perpetrator and then later finds themselves being pushed into unwanted sexual activity, the misconceptions about “asking for it” and “putting out” might make the victim unaware that any unwanted sexual activity is assault, regardless of the relationship between perpetrator and victim.

But even when a rape kit is collected, the immense backlog of rape kits in many jurisdictions means it may be years before an investigator takes a look at the evidence – or never. Shrinking budgets and rising crime rates, such as the spate of murders mentioned earlier, means that the police and criminal justice system choose the most pressing cases to investigate and may not consider seeking a trial for a rapist without extraordinary pressure placed upon them by the media, the victims and their families, or the gruesome nature of the crime. While laws have been passed demanding that rape kit backlogs be processed in a timely manner and that adequate funding be appropriated for this, police departments, like those in Philadelphia, often have solutions for avoiding doing so if they feel that investigations into rapists is not a productive use of their time. This is not to say that the police are heartless or that all of them consider rape prosecution a waste of resources, simply that there are only so many hours in the day and officers on patrol, and when making decisions between stopping gang activity, murders, and sexual assaults, they may place different weight on preventative measures for different crimes.

Finally, but just as importantly, the social pressures on victims of sexual assault often repel survivors from seeking justice. For a heartbreaking example, simply look at the media’s treatment of the Steubenville rape case, where a highly intoxicated young woman was repeatedly violated and degraded by people she had once considered friends, who she had trusted. Instead of honoring that trust, they videotaped their assaults on her and kept a jeering commentary running through their texts and photos to friends of their shocking behavior. Even worse, the victim found herself the laughingstock of the town, and when she sought justice, the target of widespread public ridicule from ignorant laypersons and reporters alike. During the trial, several reporters bemoaned the fact that the rapists’ promising careers in football were now ruined, and repeatedly emphasized their positive qualities and young ages as if to imbue them with a sort of innocence – an innocence they surely did not possess or deserve. And it’s not as if this case were an outlier, as any quick search through the internet will show. In fact, I was recently horrified to find a man arguing that women who falsely report rape – and again, it is pertinent to note that many such ‘false’ reports are actually reports that were not thoroughly investigated – deserve the death penalty. With such aggression and violence as the result of reporting rape, why would any victim suffering from the traumatic aftereffects of rape choose to undergo such institutional and social trauma?

Sexual assault is not the only violence that Chicagoans must fear, but it is certainly one which is largely misunderstood, misrepresented, and misreported on a constant, systemic basis, and it makes one wonder if being the murder capital of the nation is the only title Chicagoans should fret about. We as a city need to take a long, hard look at the culture of compliance we have woven around rape with victim-blaming attitudes, undeserved scrutiny at the survivors of sexual assault, and ignorance around the legal troubles which survivors face. While I extend my deepest sympathies to the four women whose lives were torn apart on an early Wednesday morning, and I express my sincerest hope that each of them recovers from the trauma that is sure to follow, I know that their stories are but a tiny segment of a large, long-looming problem that we all must fight, even if just by casting a light into the darkness and showing what horrors we face.

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