WHY WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT BILL COSBY
This is a tough one. I’ve been putting off any comment on “the story” for a number of reasons. First and foremost, my lawyer background prompts a visceral response anytime someone is skewered in the media, without the benefit of the necessary processes and protections of our justice system. Any coward can level an accusation, have it go “viral” almost immediately, and end a person’s life as he or she knew it. Second, I grew up with Bill Cosby. I loved Bill Cosby. Really loved him. In image, he was funny, loving, kind, wise and just plain decent. He was a “family man” in every sense of the term. He brought so much laughter to our house. In fact, the hardest I have EVER seen my own dad laugh was when we watched “Bill Cosby Himself” together. The dentist routine had all of us literally on the floor with laughter. These were experiences shared in so many homes by so many families. He has a true gift, and we loved him for that.
The most troubling part of this story is not that Bill Cosby may not have been the person he seemed to be. That’s always a bitter pill to swallow; we don’t like to be wrong, fooled even, and we don’t like to see our revered heroes prove themselves to be full-on villains. We don’t need to focus on Bill Cosby or what the future holds for him. That will be in the hands of lawyers, judges and juries. It will be addressed by his family and closest friends, hopefully behind closed doors, with their privacy respected. What happens to him will be decided by those in positions to decide such things. But we, as a society, do need to talk about this story for so many reasons.
Sexual assault is notoriously underreported. Victims who have the courage to come forward often report experiencing further violation throughout the investigative and court processes. They sometimes feel victimized in the court of public opinion. Victims may face responses ranging from doubt, to disbelief, to flat out angry insults and derogatory innuendos about the victim’s motives and character. Just this week, Rolling Stone published a horrifying account of a prominent university’s extensive history of fraternity-sanctioned sexual assault. Victims were roundly discouraged, dismissed and vilified. This has to stop. In protecting these institutions and offenders, we create and build a rape culture, in which women are objectified and degraded. They are not believed. Not valued.
In the cases of Bill Cosby’s accusers, the initial response seemed to focus on the “why now?” Shouldn’t the victims have come forward years ago, instead of waiting so long? It is important to point out that many DID report their experiences when they happened. One went to a lawyer, who proceeded to laugh at her. One took it to the prosecutor, who believed her and wanted to press charges, but just didn’t think he had sufficient evidence. (Remember, Mr. Cosby’s alleged modus operandi was to drug and rape – leaving no marks and no memory.) The allegations were out there, and mostly squelched. Bill Cosby was, well, Bill Cosby. He was America’s favorite dad. No one wanted to see that guy fall. And too many people had too much at stake if he did. He was untouchable. Which leads to the second point …
Abuse of Power
There is no shortage of cases in which men abuse their positions of power in order to victimize women. But its prevalence should not dilute its seriousness. Bill Cosby’s is a very pure case of a charismatic beloved man, who allegedly used his status and standing for harm. Such an abuser counts on two things being true: (1) no one would believe he would do such things, and (2) consequently, his victims will be unlikely to speak up and make themselves subject to scrutiny and criticism.
The first assumption is built on a foundation of ego, and protected by those with much at stake. If you are “the” Bill Cosby -- Mr. Jello, Mr. NBC -- you have layers and layers of people and organizations invested in protecting an image. On less prominent levels, there is still ego and there are still unquestioning protectors. We see teachers, coaches, business owners, religious leaders and other community stand-outs who seem to inspire fierce loyalties and protections of their “followers”. While many are indeed deserving of such respect, some are not. Charisma does not always indicate integrity. Yet it is often blinding.
The second assumption is related, and often more insidious. Beloved icons are protected with a ferocity that can produce an atmosphere in which it is nearly impossible to challenge that image. The victim may question her experiences, and, not uncommonly, may question her own involvement in the abuse. In judicial remedy law, there is a doctrine termed “unclean hands”. This is a defense to an accusation in which the defendant claims that the plaintiff is entitled to less or no remedy because of his or her own behavior. He or she (plaintiff) has not behaved perfectly and thus is not entitled to relief. It is precisely this fear that weighs heavy on many victims’ minds. They start the reel in their heads – I did agree to go to his room; I did have drinks with him; I did let him talk to me in an inappropriate manner; I liked the attention; I must have participated/instigated/brought about the abuse; my behavior will be on trial too. We are seeing these questions asked of Bill Cosby’s accusers – Why did you go? Why did you go back again? You accepted the drinks; didn’t you know what could have happened? This plays on the shame a victim inevitably feels following abuse or assault, even without the doubters. Adding a layer of shame and doubt when a victim is most vulnerable discourages even the strongest women from taking action.
Rape Assist Drugs
Cosby’s alleged "M.O.", corroborated by a number of women, was to secretly slip some sort of rape assist drugs into targets’ drinks. When this information came to light, an early comedy routine resurfaced in which he joked about slipping “Spanish Fly” into girls’ drinks. Back then, it may have seemed a little off-color and not so funny. Now, applying hindsight, it is downright frightening. We were laughing at a man making light of the very criminal behavior that he may have been perpetrating at the time and in the future.
We have all heard about being slipped "mickeys" and "roofies", almost as if they were urban legends. The reality is, these drugs are used, and used often, to facilitate sexual assault. Of course, the number one rape assist drug is alcohol itself. While statistics vary, likely upwards of 70% of sexual assaults involve alcohol on the part of the offender, the victim, or both. The percentage jumps much higher when discussing rape on college campuses. But there are many drugs used without the victim’s knowledge that cause a list of effects including impaired judgment, physical immobility, loss of consciousness, and loss of memory. These drugs are dangerous for a number of reasons. They are difficult to detect. Their effects may mimic those of alcohol, which the victim may have willingly ingested. Most leave the system quickly so testing may turn up negative results even in cases where they have been used. With a loss of consciousness, the victim will not put up a fight, and no marks will be left as evidence.
Many of us have been given these drugs, some without ever realizing. I hear story after story from women (and even some men!) about their experiences with rape assist drugs. They are readily available and virtually undetectable in a drink. The key to preventing a dangerous outcome is most often the presence of a friend or on-looker that recognized the threat and stepped in. In our workshops, we emphasize the importance of watching out for each other. Recognize the danger signs and take action. Don’t leave friends alone with men you don’t know and trust. Don’t chalk unusual behavior up to having had “just a little too much to drink”. Trust your intuition. Every time.
As I said, this is a hard case for so many of us. It was so easy to love and even trust Bill Cosby. His comedy and characters promoted positive and loving images. But we cannot allow these images to cloud what is. We cannot allow them to keep us from listening to his accusers. Whatever facts emerge with time, these women must be heard. Future victims’ lives may depend on it.