The death of Madison Brooks, a 19-year-old who was fatally hit by a car after police say she was raped, has spurred the search for solutions to sexual assault and sparked national news coverage.
But while the case is shockingly tragic, experts say it underscores the prevalence of dangers for women in Louisiana, where crimes against women are some of the highest in the nation.
Louisiana ranks 2nd in the nation for women killed by men, with the rate increasing steadily for 6 consecutive years. While rates of sex crimes are difficult to track because of reporting issues, statistics indicate Louisiana ranks high. Louisiana has a rate of about 46 rapes per 100,000 people in 2020, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Crime Data Explorer. The U.S. average is about 38 per 100,000. It is estimated that about 80% of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported.
But experts say there are multiple contributing factors that make the state's women more vulnerable to sexual and violent crimes.
The state also is last in the U.S. for average earnings by women compared to men - 69 cents to the dollar. Louisiana Black and Latina women fare worse - they make on average 47 cents and 53 cents compared to White men.
Women in Louisiana also have some of the highest rates of maternal mortality, at three times the national rate.
"Louisiana is the worst place to be a woman," said Michelle Jeanis, a criminal justice professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "It's health care, politics, the income gap, access to education and the violence rates against women."
Being paid less or having high rates of death related to childbirth might not seem like it's related to sexual violence on its face. But those factors make women more vulnerable to sexual perpetrators.
"A lot of the underlying factors that influence sexual violence are high in Louisiana," said Jessie Nieblas, the director of education and prevention at Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault. "When we look at things like societal oppression, or gender norms towards women, or different equity measures, those are all correlated with increased sexual violence rates."
Searching for deeper solutions
Louisiana State University, where Brooks was a student, has vowed to tackle underage drinking in response to the Jan. 15 death. The Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control pulled the license of the bar where Brooks met the four men, two of whom allegedly raped her in the backseat of a car.
While those kinds of solutions are important in addressing the safety of women on campus, experts say more needs to be done to protect women more broadly. The high rates of inequity women experience in Louisiana reflect a deeply embedded culture of misogyny, said Jeanis.
"Rape is about power and control the vast majority of the time," said Jeanis. "If we don't think highly about women - if we think they say no, and they really mean yes, they wear certain clothes because they want unasked for contact, if we think that if we're both drunk, then I don't have to worry about consent - if I have those belief systems, that dramatically increases my likelihood of committing a sexual assault."
And while this high-profile case has drawn a lot of attention to women's victimization, this is not always the typical case of violent crime in Louisiana, where many victims are of lower socioeconomic status and women of color.
Of women killed by men in the state in 2017, nearly 60% were Black. Of rape cases reported by law enforcement between 2020 and 2021, about 37% were Black. In Louisiana, about 33% of the population is Black.
Often, people with a lack of resources to escape a perpetrator might be targeted, according to Dr. Katie Edwards, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Nebraska.
"We know people may be targeted because they're viewed as more vulnerable," said Edwards. "A woman doesn't have financial means to leave."
Race and victimization
Pictures from Brooks' social media have been splashed across TikTok, Instagram and featured widely in national news outlets. Criminologists who study media coverage of crime point to racial implications of who is seen as deserving of coverage as one of the reasons for the attention on this case.
"Historically, the victimization of white women by men of color is a consistent theme that is used to generate fear and outrage by the news media," said Michael Sierra-Arévalo, a sociologist professor at The University of Texas at Austin.
And outsized attention on one case can have a chilling effect on reporting, said Morgan Lamandre, the president of Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response, or STAR. If other survivors read comments questioning the legitimacy of the charge, they're less likely to report their own assaults.
"She wasn't even the one who made the complaint of rape, and people are calling her a liar," said Lamandre.
Cases like Brooks' that receive national attention can result in reactionary, quick laws that haven't been proven to lower rates of sexual assault. Jeanis pointed to the sex offender registry, which has not been shown to lower the rate of recidivism.
"That way to enact laws - take one particular law and magnify it across the nation - is a very poor way to enact legislation, and it usually doesn't work," said Jeanis.
Instead, Jeanis said male social support systems and behaviors should be taken into account.
"Perhaps it's not four bad apples that had some alcohol," said Jeanis. "Perhaps it's a larger cultural issue that needs to be examined."