Dealing with a serial rapist: Professionals weigh in

Here's some small comfort for women concerned about the serial rapist: You're far more likely to be raped by an acquaintance than by the predator who's preying on local women.

In fact, 90 percent of all sexual assaults are committed by people the victims know. So what makes this serial rapist so terrifying?

"This one feeds on our fears," says Jessica Cochran, a training coordinator at SARA, the Sexual Assault Resource Agency. "The black guy, the stranger who's physically violent. It's easier to talk about stranger rape when it's clearly not your fault."

Cochran blames part of the terror on media sensationalizing a particular story, pointing out that there are many stories of rape that are never covered. And she says in theory, all rapists are serial rapists because they usually rape more than once.

The FBI estimates that a woman is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Most of those rapes are never reported at all: Only 39 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police, and only 11 percent of the perpetrators are arrested, says Cochran.

Her advice to women: "It's okay to be scared." Cochran doesn't believe the onus of responsibility should be placed on females. "You can put bars on your windows and never leave your home and still be attacked," she says.

Instead, Cochran believes that "the perpetrator needs to be held accountable." She adds, "This guy is clearly a deviant."

She also would like to see more media education about rape and sexual assault, and what people should do if it happens to a family member. SARA's hotline at 977-7273 is one local resource; UVA's Sexual Assault Education Office is at 982-2774.

Claire Kaplan, coordinator of the UVA office, says she's surprised at the lack of concern by undergraduates about the attacks. She theorizes that because the police press conference happened near the end of the semester, coeds may have been focusing more on exams. "Undergrads are very good at disassociating," she says.

And while news of a serial rapist is alarming, Kaplan says the number of sexual assaults reported at UVA "is pretty average" compared to other college towns. The numbers for 2002, which are still incomplete, are 21; in 2001, 33 sexual assaults were reported, three more than in 2000.

Kaplan decries advice like "Lock your door" because "it assumes women have no common sense." (Police still believe locking one's door is a basic safety precaution, particularly against a rapist who has been gaining entry through unlocked doors or windows.)

If women are really fearful, Kaplan urges them to take self-defense classes. "Self defense is trying to keep your head on straight to strategize, even if it means complying to get out alive," she says.

But even sexual assault professionals are being more cautious. SARA's Christine Hall says, "For me, I'm paying a little more attention to locking my door or when walking to get my mail because of heightened awareness."