Why Bill Cosby's Sexual Assault Charge Is Meaningful For Survivors
Update: On April 26, 2018 Cosby was found guilty on three counts of sexual assault, after his first trial in 2017 ended with a deadlocked jury after six days of deliberations.
Over the past decade, dozens of women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Yet, primarily due to the statute of limitations on these alleged crimes having passed, Cosby was never actually charged for any of them. That changed on December 30th, however, when the infamous comedian was charged with committing a felony aggravated indecent assault in 2005 by one survivor in Pennsylvania — a state in which the statute of limitations is 12 years.
Despite the disturbing number of women who have come forward — not to mention Cosby's own admission in July to obtaining Quaaludes with the intent of giving them to young women and drugging at least one individual — these survivors were discredited and even derided for years. For example, former model Janice Dickinson was publicly slut-shamed after alleging Cosby assaulted her, others blamed for not preventing their attacks, and plenty of others accused of making such allegations for attention or money. Others effectively discounted these survivors' accounts by publicly defending Cosby.
These attitudes towards survivors who speak out about the crimes they claim to have faced is hardly restricted to this case, however. Activists have deemed this pervasive cultural norm "rape culture" — or "a culture in which sexual violence is considered the norm — in which people aren't taught not to rape, but are taught not to be raped," as BuzzFeed defines it. Our society also largely upholds myths of "perfect victims," or the idea that survivors must meet a narrow criteria of victimhood to be believed, as well as "stranger rapists," or the notion that assaults are only committed by unknown criminals.
Studies demonstrate just how pervasive these destructive myths are. 54% of women who responded to one 2010 survey, for example, said victims should be held at least partially responsible for their rapes. Many of the survivors of Cosby's alleged crimes have specifically confirmed facing them and elaborated on how they effected their actions as well.
"Over the years, I've struggled to get people to take my story seriously," Barbara Bowman wrote in the Washington Post of her fight to seek justice against Cosby. "I first told my agent, who did nothing ... A girlfriend took me to a lawyer, but he accused me of making the story up. Their dismissive responses crushed any hope I had of getting help. I was convinced no one would listen to me."
"My mother didn't believe me initially, either," Sunni Welles, another survivor, told New York Magazine. "You've been hurt to a level that a lot of people don't really understand. Still, to this day."
Refusing to believe survivors doesn't just hurt individuals, but also ultimately contributes to a society in which alleged rapists face few consequences and assault persists. 68% of sexual assault survivors will never report the crime and only 2% of reported rapists will ever see a day in jail, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Yet as many as 1 in 6 women can still expect to be assaulted over the course of their lifetime. What's more, believing survivors doesn't just make moral or ethical sense, but statistical sense, too: According to the FBI, only 2% to 8% of rape allegations are false.
Of course, Cosby's particular fate remains to be seen. The next hearing in his case will be on January 14th and he could ultimately face a 10-year-long prison sentence and $25,000 fine, according to the Associated Press. But no matter the results, the fact that a beloved, public figure was finally charged at all — that the public has finally been forced to recognize that both assailants as well as survivors can, and are, anyone — will hopefully serve a blow to rape culture and result in an important step towards believing survivors more generally.
More articles by Category: Feminism, Media, Misogyny, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexism, Rape, Sexualized violence, Social media