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.

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.