Now Do You Believe Us?

By Katie Feifer

The case of Bill Cosby, beloved television “father,” comedian, role model and alleged rapist continues to unfold. And as it unfolds, it exposes some of the key issues at the heart of how we think about and confront (or don’t) sexual violence.

The latest: A deposition Cosby gave in 2005 as part of a lawsuit by a woman alleging he raped her has been made public. In it, he admits to giving women Quaaludes prior to “having sex” with this woman, and others.

Q. "When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?" 

A. “Yes.”

The line of questioning was stopped by Cosby’s attorney before he was asked whether the women he gave the drugs to took it freely and knowingly, and whether they subsequently consented to “having sex” with Cosby.

Here’s what we see. So far, 40+ women have accused Cosby of raping them. Most say that he put drugs in their drink, without their consent.  Many of the women who have come forward have been called liars, by a public that believes Cosby would never do something so heinous. This despite the fact that the survivors’ accounts of what Cosby did to them are eerily (but not surprisingly) similar. Sexual predators have an MO. They find what works, and stick with it. As Cosby apparently did, over decades.

So first (false) lesson: A woman is not to be believed. Not even when she has no reason to lie. Not even when her testimony is the same as those of many other women. Their testimony doesn’t count and can’t be “proof.”

From a CNN report

Singer Jill Scott was one of the celebrities who had supported Cosby after the allegations started emerging.

She previously tweeted, “I’m respecting a man who has done more for the image of Brown people that almost anyone EVER. From Fat Albert to the Huxtables.”

But she changed course after learning about Cosby’s deposition.

”About Bill Cosby. Sadly his own testimony offers PROOF of terrible deeds, which is ALL I have ever required to believe the accusations,” Scott tweeted.

When the alleged predator himself is discovered to have admitted to drugging women before “sex”, that’s when a few of the disbelievers change their tune? Judd Apatow spelled it out quite nicely in Esquire.

I don’t think there is anything new here. It is only new to people who didn’t believe an enormous amount of women who stated clearly that he drugged them. We shouldn’t need Bill Cosby to admit it to believe forty people who were victimized by him.... Maybe now more people in show business and all around our country will stand up and tell the people he attacked that we support you and believe you.

The true lesson here? Believe us. Whether it's one of us or 20 or 40 saying it. When we tell you someone raped us, believe us. 

Second lesson: We’re confusing things with the language we use. We often use the word “sex” when we talk about “rape.” The words have entirely different meaning. As Cara Courchesne of Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault so rightly pointed out, “Sex isn’t against the law. Rape is.

Reading “Cosby planned to use drugs to have sex with women” instead of “Cosby planned to use drugs to sexually assault women” prevents readers from fully understanding that we are in fact talking about a violent crime.

When we use euphemisms to talk about horrific crimes that are perpetrated against people, we are diminishing the crime, devaluing the experience of survivors, and removing the distinction between a consensual act and a crime.

Our media frequently describe sexual violence using the language of consensual sex. Even when they talk about children being raped by adults, as in “Roman Polanski had sex with a 13 year old girl.” Sounds a lot different than “Roman Polanski forcibly penetrated a 13 year old girl’s mouth and vagina with his penis.”

Third lesson: Not listening to women when they tell us they have been raped and sexually violated, and confusing rape with “sex” in our conversations, makes it ever so difficult for us to have a clear and true picture of what sexual violence looks like. Yes, there are a few instances when it can be confusing – to both victim and perpetrator – whether “what just happened” was rape or not.

Far, far more often, though, there is no objective confusion. We become confused when we are so sloppy with language that we equate a violent crime with a consensual, mutually pleasurable experience. And when we don’t listen to or believe the (primarily) women who tell us what they know so clearly has been done to them by predators who rape them.