Bill Cosby: Race, Gender and Serial Rape Denial

The reasons that so many have not been able to imagine Cosby as a serial rapist is that the American imagination has been and still is captive to stereotypes of gender, race and even economic class. These stereotypes have combined to promote disbelief of the many women who have said over many years that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted or raped them.
07/07/2015 04:13 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2016
FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2014 file photo, comedian Bill Cosby performs during a show at the Maxwell C. King Center for the Per
FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2014 file photo, comedian Bill Cosby performs during a show at the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne, Fla. Los Angeles prosecutors have declined to file any charges against Cosby after a woman recently reported the comedian molested her around 1974. The rejection of a child sexual abuse charge by prosecutors on Tuesday comes roughly 10 days after the woman, Judy Huth, met with police detectives. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office rejected filing a misdemeanor charge of annoying or molesting a child under the age of 18 because the statute of limitations had passed. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Who could imagine that kindly "Dr. Huxtable," the beloved father and caring physician played by Bill Cosby on the The Cosby Show, could also be a serial rapist?

The reasons that so many have not been able to imagine Cosby/Dr. Huxtable as a serial rapist is that the American imagination has been and still is captive to stereotypes of gender, race and even economic class. These stereotypes have combined to promote disbelief of the many women who have said over many years that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted or raped them.

It is only now, when newly uncovered court documents obtained by the Associated Press show that Cosby admitted in a 2005 deposition that he gave the sedative Quaalude to at least one woman with whom he intended to have sex, that the realization is beginning to dawn on many people that perhaps they should have believed so many women over so many years.

Gender stereotyping plays a role. Disbelief of women reporting rape is widespread. Women as well as men prefer to believe that rape is at least partially the woman's fault. On the one hand, this view is as old as Eve being blamed for getting herself and Adam expelled from the Garden of Eden. But on the other, for some women such views are in part self-protective: "It won't happen to me, because those women were bad." For men, the reason that women are to blame may be quite different. It's not just Rush Limbaugh who believes "no means yes."

But race plays a huge role in American attitudes toward rape, and it cannot be ignored in the unfolding analysis of why this particular accused serial rapist has mostly been believed and his alleged victims have not been believed. Racial stereotypes abound.

There has never really been a commonly accepted, legal definition of rape in the United States, as the term "legitimate rape," used in the 2012 elections, shows. It was only in 2012, in fact, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation revised its definition of rape from "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will," to include any form of forced sexual penetration of a man or a woman, and to include "non-forcible rape."

The struggle to define rape as a crime is very much a part of race, gender and economic struggles beginning in the 19th century, as I argue in my forthcoming book Women's Bodies as Battlefields: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women. Rape has been successfully prosecuted in American history, but these charges and convictions have been highly politically, racially and economically dependent, as Estelle B. Freedman also argues in her book Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation. Freedman argues that the effort to define and thus prosecute rape is a struggle for who gets to be a citizen in the United States, and thus who gets to write law.

Varied definitions of rape have thus been part of a political, social and racial struggle, Freedman argues, undertaken by "generations of women's rights and racial justice advocates" who "have contested the narrow understanding of rape as a brutal attack on a chaste, unmarried white woman by a stranger, typically portrayed as an African American male." The history of slavery, and Jim (and Jane) Crow laws, have contributed to the history of rape as legal on the bodies of slave women, and as a pretext for lynching in the anti-emancipation backlash, and as a "private matter" in more recent times.

This racialized history of rape is a crucial factor in the Cosby history. As poet and author Jewel Allison has powerfully written in "Bill Cosby sexually assaulted me. I didn't tell because I didn't want to let black America down," "I let race trump rape." Allison realized all too well her own, and the African-American community's, desire to protect the Cosby/Huxtable image and not feed the stereotype of the black male as rapist. "Black people are sensitive to the fact that, for centuries, images of African American men as threats to white women have been used to justify oppressing them," she wrote.

But white America has also wanted Cosby to be Dr. Huxtable, the caring doctor, the loving parent and, above all, the nonthreatening, successful, middle-class African American, though clearly for very different reasons than the African-American community. The delusion that Cosby offered white America was that African Americans who got an education, worked hard and lived by imaginary middle-class virtues could really make it during the economic debacle of the Reagan years that hit African Americans especially hard.

In other words, white America could have both its Reaganomics and its racism validated by The Cosby Show. Any African-American family not able to make it in Reagan's America had only themselves to blame.

And so The Cosby Show, and Cosby himself, is a reflection of the operation of these interlocking stereotypes that keep many in the U.S., often for very different reasons, blind to the realities of sexual violence against women.

Just think for a moment: If so many women have come forward, how many other women may have silenced themselves because they feared, and rightly, that they would not be believed about the alleged actions of Bill Cosby?

So much suffering comes from our failure as a nation to reject our various stereotypes of gender, race and class and really see violence against women for what it is.

Violence against women is wrong.