Bill Cosby and the Monster Myth

By CAASE Executive Director, Kaethe Morris Hoffer

Since I was a teenager and rape victims first began confiding in me, I have been engaged in the work of standing with people who have lived through sexual violation.  Following renewed media interest in revelations about sexually exploitative conduct by Bill Cosby, I have been struck by how our wider community is now wrestling with the same problem most survivors experience: it is astonishingly difficult, and painful, to come to terms with the reality that otherwise good men engage in rape.

Thanks to decades of committed work by researchers, there are now mountains of evidence that men who commit sexual assault mostly violate people who are not strangers to them. They use enough force to overcome resistance but not so much as to leave behind significant or tell-tale physical injuries. So many are engaging in this violation, that rape merits being identified as an epidemic directed at women (some research has one in five women experience sexual victimization, some studies suggest the odds are slightly worse, few make it much better). These facts--as well as survivor accounts worth reading--make it clear that while rape is a monstrous act of violation, it is rarely committed by men who look like monsters. Rather, most men who rape are socially skilled and appealing enough to engineer circumstances in which they are alone with—as well as liked and trusted by—the subjects of their sexual domination.

I am sure that the world feels safer to those who believe that public conduct is a reliable predictor of private behavior.  A world in which rape is committed by men like Mike Tyson but not by men like Marv Albert, Woody Allen, Kobe Bryant, Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, or William Kennedy Smith (to name a few men of undeniable talent who have been credibly reported to have engaged in sexual violation) is a world that would make more sense than the one in which we live.

Survivors—when we care to listen to them—tell us that rape is engaged in by men whose looks, behavior, and talent win friends, trusting colleagues, and sometimes very high public regard.  If one of your initial reactions to news exposing Bill Cosby as a serial sexual predator was some form of uncomfortable disbelief—an immediate “no way—this guy can’t be a rapist!” response—then you have lived the primary first reaction of most rape victims.  After decades of listening to survivors describe their heart-wrenching experiences of sexual assault, I have heard again and again (especially from victims of non-strangers, which is most victims) that their dominant thought during the rape itself (and for days or weeks afterwards) was not “He’s raping me” but something more like a primal cry of shock and disbelief—a terrified “what is happening!?” or “this can’t be happening.”  It is often a variation on the following: “I don’t/didn’t want this, and he knows/knew that….but…. he can’t be a rapist/I can’t be a rape victim/that can’t be rape.”  

Frustratingly, even the total clarity that most victims have about not wanting the sex they endure, does not immediately erase the views they formed prior to being violated.   Rather, most survivors have the incredibly uncomfortable—and confusing—experience of simultaneously conceiving of their violator as a decent (even attractive or admirable) man, and seeing the cruelty and callousness of his conduct. As anyone familiar with domestic violence or child abuse knows well, it takes time before abuse turns trust and affection into rage or hatred—even when the trust or affection has shallow roots.

As I think the broader public is now experiencing, following multiple reports that Bill Cosby took pleasure having sex with young women who were passed out, it is not easy to change how you think or feel about someone—especially someone like Cosby. It is painful, and difficult, to accept that a person who inspires respect or regard can also be someone who commits rape.  This pain, of course, is compounded for survivors by the sickening realization that just as the prior conduct of the man who raped them led them to assume that he couldn’t be a “rapist,” so too will others interpret his public conduct as evidence against the truth.  While victims are forced by their lived experiences to come to terms with realities that wishful thinking can’t erase, bystanders (whether they are friends, family, the criminal justice system, or the press) have access to a much less painful route: they can ignore the survivor’s account, they can choose to call it a lie, or they can implicitly dismiss it by calling it “an allegation”.

Because of the overwhelming number of women who are now speaking out, it may be that the public at large will ultimately come to regard Bill Cosby with the hatred and contempt that it reserves for men it deems rapists.  Some may even think such vilification is what it means to stand with survivors—many of whom do ultimately become blind to the qualities in the perpetrator that first inspired trust and affection.  As far as I’m concerned, this wouldn’t serve anyone. While I want people to stand with victims, doing so does not require that we deny the humanity or the talent of those who rape.  Bill Cosby’s life and career are full of inspiring acts of comedy, genius, and grace, and we can see and celebrate those while we simultaneously condemn his exploitation of women. 

Fundamentally, what I long for is a full scale rejection of the “monster myth” that has people thinking men cannot be both good and capable of rape.  For years now, survivor accounts of rape have been making it crystal clear that rape is rarely an act committed by obviously evil men, but mostly a monstrous act committed by otherwise good men.  To truly stand in solidarity with survivors, we must acknowledge and accept this painful and confusing truth. 

Clinging to the myth that only monsters engage in rape doesn’t serve anyone—except those who rape but can seek and win protection from accountability by pointing to their virtues.  For most people who never experience rape firsthand, the myth discourages thoughtful consideration about sexual conduct in favor of shallow analyses about who people “are” (is he a “rapist” or is she a “liar,” a “mental case,” or a “gold-digger”?) and incites disbelief of victims, because the very qualities that lead victims into situations of vulnerability—kindness, consideration, talent, generosity, wit, charisma—are thought to be qualities “rapists” are incapable of.  For victims, of course, the myth is a full-scale nightmare.  By setting victims up to suffer excruciating cognitive dissonance when they are sexually violated by a person they also know is a good person, the myth promotes self-disbelief, adding deep insult to agonizing injury. 

It might seem deeply wrong to describe a man as both good and a rapist.  But this is a truth that survivors have been pointing to for years.  And for as long as we refuse to see it—perhaps out of a fear that we will then have to treat rapists as humans deserving of compassion—we will continue to fail to treat victims with the credulity and compassion that they deserve.