It seems like every day there are new accusations coming out against Bill Cosby, once America's favorite dad and comedian, suggesting that he has sexually assaulted more than a dozen women over the years.
As an attorney and a survivor of sexual abuse, two things strike me. First, it's amazing to think that it's taken roughly 40 years for these alleged crimes to come to light. And second, that it must have taken extreme courage for these women to come forward -- yet again for some of them -- to speak out against someone who has so much more power than they do.
I know just how hard it is. It took me decades to face up to the sexual assault I'd suffered in my own life, to even admit to myself that it happened, and I didn't have to worry about being described as a rape victim on the nightly news or being sued by a powerful man with a dozen lawyers.
Even now, Cosby allies are publicly questioning the alleged victims' motivations, even though the statute of limitations has long gone and no one seems to be asking for money. All too quickly, we are falling into the pattern of blaming the victim rather than asking how we can help.
And in my mind, that's why we tend to get it all wrong on sexual assault. By making it about the victim, and immediately calling their claims into question, we play directly into the hands of abusers.
Most people think rape is about sex, but the reality is that it's all about power. Sex may be the act, or the weapon, but it's the complete loss of self, security, and boundaries that lingers on long afterwards. Many women and children are assaulted by men who have more power and leverage than they do, either in society or in their interpersonal dynamics. The abuser preys on the fact that the victim will be afraid to speak out and won't be believed.
If we are to believe Mr. Cosby's accusers, then that certainly seems to be the case here. Many of those who have come out publicly have stated they waited decades to speak about what happened because they were afraid of the consequences. Imagine that for a moment: they may have been raped and were fearful that they would be the ones to suffer if the truth became public knowledge.
If they are being honest, their only crime was trusting in someone who claimed to want to serve as a mentor or father figure to them. What kind of message does it send when we treat them as if they've done something wrong when they come forward to report a particularly violent incident?
That kind of situation is all too common. On every college campus and military base, and in every American city, there are women who are afraid to tell the truth about what's happened to them. And if we are ever going to make serious inroads into lowering instances of sexual abuse, taking away the stigma and shame of assault is going to be an important first step. We don't treat someone who has been robbed or mugged as if they've done something wrong, so why do we treat the victims of sexual assault like criminals?
I also believe we should reconsider the statute of limitations on these kinds of offenses. History has taught us that it can take a long time for victims to come to grips with what has happened to them, much less find the strength to stand up to an authority figure. It appears that Bill Cosby is not in any danger of criminal charges, and that's too bad.
Cosby's lawyers' uneven responses to the various accusations are very revealing. Where they have no apparent defense, they use words like "utterly preposterous" (Andrea Constand), "realm of the ridiculous" (Carla Ferrigno), and "...doesn't intend to dignify these allegations with any comment" (Barbara Bowman). Thus far, they have only responded to an accuser when they think they can attack them from a credibility standpoint: they attacked Linda Joy Traitz because of a criminal record in connection with drugs. Has occurred to anyone that this young girl may have turned to drugs as a direct result of Cosby's alleged assault? All of her offenses followed the event; they did not proceed it. Then there's Louisa Moritz, who claims Cosby attacked her in the green room of the Tonight Show. Now she's a 68-year-old attorney who, for Christ's sake, made the Dean's List in Law School - let me tell you how hard that is to accomplish. The attorney's response to her allegation of sexual assault is to point to a State Bar disciplinary charge some 40 years later. Talk about the realm of the ridiculous. Cosby needs to fire his lawyers and hire a PR firm for damage control!
Bill Cosby isn't the first celebrity to be accused of rape and he won't be the last. I hope we'll have learned enough from this story to do better. Specifically, I hope we'll stop blaming rape victims for what has happened to them, and stop letting well-known men laugh off serious allegations.
Most of all, though, I hope we'll start getting it right on sexual assault by encouraging victims to come forward when the attack occurs and share their stories so their attackers can be brought to justice and they can start to find peace again.