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.

How CAASE Empowers Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation

By Caleb Probst, CAASE Education Outreach Associate

I was asked to come into a high school in Chicago to work with their 9th grade boys. The school indicated that they were troubled by the behavior exhibited in the halls by some of the boys toward some of the girls, and thought the boys would benefit from going through our program. At the start of the first day, I asked the boys to write down words they would use to describe “a prostitute.” The majority of the responses were words like, “slut,” “hoe,” “THOT” (That Hoe Out There), “easy,” “nasty,” “dirty,” and “worthless.” Many of these words were the same words that the administration reported hearing directed at the girls in the school. At the end of the 4-session program, the boys had a new perspective. They really understood how different the realities of prostitution were from the myths they were accustomed to hearing and how many prostituted people endure violence, poverty, and trauma. They also learned about about how society frequently shames and isolates people in prostitution.

As these young men went through our 4-session program, they had an opportunity to examine what they know about “being a man” and think critically about how those shared perceptions influence their own decision making. They also had a chance to consider how their behavior, and the behavior of their peers, can impact their community. One student wrote, “I’ve learned that men treat women like crap, they use them as an object… I know that this puts girls in danger of becoming a prostitute.” He and his classmates began to see that objectifying women and degrading them with words like “slut” can have serious consequences. When asked how girls end up in prostitution, many responded with “they had a traumatized life,” “they had a rough childhood,” or “[society says] they have less power.”

Now, not every girl who is objectified and degraded will end up being commercially sexually exploited, and these young men acknowledged that. But as one student said, “we [never] know her story.” At the end of the final session, I asked the young men if there was anything that they would do differently now, based on what they had learned during the program. The two most common responses were “I will stop saying words like ‘thot’” and “I am going to respect women more.”

School is out for the summer now, but there's hope yet for these young men who have just begun their journey to better understanding and respect for their female peers.

Woody Allen and Rejecting the Monster Myth

By: Kaethe Morris Hoffer

I enjoy (many) Woody Allen movies, even though I've long believed he molested his daughter. I sing along when I hear Michael Jackson on the radio, even though I think he was a pedophile. I'd even vote again for Bill Clinton, even though I've always regarded the women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault as credible. 

It's not that I think there shouldn't be consequences for abusive sex--I just believe that we should be able to hold predators accountable while still making space for them in our society. Condemning someone's worst acts simply doesn't require that we stop acknowledging their humanity or talents. Allen, Clinton, Jackson: I think all these men engaged in some monstrous acts of violation. But I don't think they are monsters, and the idea that only monsters engage in sexual violation is a myth we need to reject.

I am the Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, an organization whose mission is to create accountability for sexual harm and eradicate sexual exploitation. I've spent the better part of the last twenty years standing with individual survivors of rape and prostitution, urging police and prosecutors to believe victims and initiate prosecutions, and filing civil lawsuits to create accountability when the criminal system fails to act (which is very often).

But does vilifying those who engage in sexual predation actually help survivors? To begin with, the more we insist that being decent or admirable is fundamentally incompatible with engaging in sexually abusive behaviors, the more difficult we make it for individual survivors who are abused by people whose humanity and/or talents are undeniable. While most people never engage in sexual abuse, most of those who do have good qualities that are plentiful and undeniable.

The monster myth isn't only a problem because it increases hostility and skepticism towards victims who report being harmed by apparently or otherwise decent men (or, rather less often, women). Extreme rhetoric and draconian penalties also discourage violators from taking responsibility for their actions: admitting to a sex offense is tantamount to declaring oneself an irredeemable degenerate. The legal consequences include lifetime pariah status and never-ending career and housing limitations pursuant to sex offender registry laws.

When Dylan Farrow recently wrote about being sexually violated as a child, she challenged readers to name their favorite Woody Allen film before and after reading a description of the sexual abuse he inflicted on her--quite explicitly endorsing the idea that it is not possible (or acceptable) to celebrate a person's talent and believe they engaged in sexual abuse. I can't blame her. An unwillingness to acknowledge that individuals can be capable of both extreme good and extreme bad is not unique to her, and our entire culture bears responsibility for the fact that she regarded celebrations of Allen and his work as a personal rebuke to her—a message that she should be silent and "go away."

So I understand that admiration for Allen feels like a slap in the face to his accusers. But still, I don't think that standing with victims requires adherence to the view that only evil men engage in rape. This view is far too simplistic, and it promotes the idea that evidence that a man is capable of kindness, love, respect, or gentleness, somehow constitutes proof against allegations of him engaging in sexually violating behavior. Just last week, for example, Barbara Walters implied that she could not believe Dylan's allegations because she has personally seen Allen be a loving and attentive father.

As a society, we must stop acting as if there are only two legitimate responses to an accusation of sexual violation: either choice A) "He is a monster" or choice B) "She is lying (or mistaken)." We must stop this because as rape victims quickly apprehend, most people quickly gravitate towards option B. For as long as those victims who do speak up are mostly disbelieved and disregarded, the great majority of victims will continue to nurse their wounds in silence, and that minority of men who engage in sexual predation will have little incentive to change their ways.

To prevent sexual violation from occurring, we must be willing to see that otherwise good people might be perpetrators. Consider, for example, what Woody Allen said to People Magazine in 1976: "I'm open-minded about sex.  I'm not above reproach; if anything, I'm below reproach. I mean, if I was caught in a love nest with fifteen 12-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him."  I find this quotation chilling, but it is not proof that he is a monster. Despite this quote—which rather clearly suggests a sexualization of pre-teens--I imagine that the majority of people in his inner circle--people who were exposed, as Barbara Walters has been, to his genuine capacity for loving and attentive kindness--viewed him as someone who "couldn't" be a man who would sexually violate a seven year old.

For as long as our rhetoric about sex offenders continues to be as extreme as it is, accusing someone of rape will continue to be taboo (perhaps more taboo than engaging in sexual violation).  And expectations that only 'monsters' are capable of rape will continue to limit our ability to acknowledge or respond to conduct that violates dignity and integrity--let alone attitudes or comments which suggest that an adult is inappropriately sexualizing children. 

Victims of Sex Trafficking and the Illusion of Choice

By: Leena Saleh

When you read a news story about a young girl getting involved in the sex trade, what are some questions that come to mind? Did she want to make money? Does she not know the consequences of getting involved? Was she abused at home?Notice that none of these questions address the people directly responsible for buying or selling sex and profiting, quite successfully, from the exploitation of said young girl.

In a recent editorial, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote about Emily, a 15-year old girl who ran away from home and became involved in the sex trade. Kristof said she became a prostitute and abandoned her parents, who were stricken with grief when they heard the news. He, too, tried coming up with rational answers for these types of questions and took it once step further to insinuate that Emily had made some poor choices. While Kristof mulls over whether other 15-year old girls like Emily will “consent” to being sold into prostitution, pimps work on recruiting their next victims.

Let’s take a step back and address the obvious elephant in the room. Under federal law, minors cannot give consent. No, as Kristof said, Emily did not have a “gun to her head,” and yes, she seems to have “voluntarily connected with her pimp,” but what seems to have been left out of the discussion are the proven methods of coercion carried out by pimps, such as showing false romantic interest, posing as benefactors, trapping victims in debt bondage, and performing other acts of psychological manipulation. Kristof’s glaring oversight aside, Emily is 15, well below the age of consent. So her ‘voluntary connection’ wasn’t voluntary at all.

Kristof is not unique in his deficit of attention to the real problem. Our culture perpetuates a particular framework: girls become victims of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and rape; this requires us to find out what they did to cause it. Sex trafficking victims are often put under a magnifying glass. Their individual choices, state of mind, and behavioral patterns are relentlessly analyzed and questioned over and over again. Rather than being rescued from their situation, they are re-victimized, which is exactly why federal law continues to be reformed in order to protect minors.

Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry. What concerned parents like Emily’s have to lose is everything traffickers have to gain. Do we want to live in a society where women and girls are purposefully recruited, bought, sold, and exploited for years on end, only to have those who profit (those selling and buying) emerge completely unscathed?

Kristof’s equation for a solution comes down to dealing with girls like Emily by figuring out why they “choose” to become trafficked. The idea is that this will prevent pimps from recruiting them. However, there is a more viable solution that has been backed by credible research: deter men from buying sex by holding those who profit accountable. This will result in a shortage of demand, and therefore a decrease in the supply: women and girls.

For those who doubt that ending demand for paid sex is possible, consider the study conducted by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation that reveals otherwise: the study found that men could be deterred from buying sex if they faced real consequences, such as fines of $1,000 or more or public accountability for what they had done.  A deficient demand will cripple the industry and put an end to the recruitment process, giving girls like Emily a fighting chance.

"The Price of Sex" and End Demand Illinois

By Anne K. Ream

I recently began blogging for Thomson Reuters Foundation, on issues affecting women and girls.  A recent post,  "Sex Trafficking: The global problem that is far more local than many Americans think,” considers "The Price of Sex," Mimi Chakarova's award-winning film on international sex trafficking, while contrasting the global realities Mimi explores to the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and girls in the United States.  

This is also a piece that considers how and why the NoVo-funded "End Demand Illinois" campaign, which is fast emerging as a national model for addressing domestic sex trafficking, has been so effective. "End Demand" is being driven by a handful of Illinois based agencies and CounterQuo partners, which is yet another reason why this is of interest.

 A special thanks De Gray and our allies at Human Rights Watch for connecting us to Mimi and her beautiful, important film.  Here's hoping that it can be a force for global and local change.   

Shining a Light on the Global Epidemic of Sex Trafficking and Sex Tourism

By Katie Feifer

Recent news about U.S. Secret Service men patronizing prostituted women and girls while in Colombia advancing a trip for the President has brought the bright light of media attention to the global problem of sex trafficking and sex tourism.

Thankfully, in the midst of media coverage that seems aimed at titillation or attempts to discredit the President or the Secret Service, we are seeing blogs and articles that steer our attention where it really ought to be: on the global epidemic that is sex trafficking and sex tourism.

Men are buying thousands and thousands of prostituted men, women and children who are little more than slaves: indentured, tortured, and forced to work against their will in a multi-billion dollar industry that is highly profitable to those who control the prostituted people.

We appreciate media coverage like the article by Rachel Durchslag of Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) in Huffingtonpost.com that rightly calls us to action to stop the demand for prostituted women, girls, boys and men. Those men who buy children or adults for sex, whether in Colombia, Thailand or Chicago, must be stopped. Their behavior is morally reprehensible and criminal – never ever something any of us should condone. And by staying silent about their behavior, we are condoning it.

And we are glad to see articles like the one in USA Today by Kirstin Powers decrying our lack of outrage: “We have a global epidemic of sex trafficking, and President Obama and members of Congress should take this opportunity to express the outrage that should be the natural reaction to slavery.”

And so should we all.