Over the past year, many have been rocked by new and resurfacing allegations that long-time comedian Bill Cosby drugged and raped 39 women (that have come forward) over the course of his career. Though Bill Cosby has largely stayed silent in response to the accusations, and the statute of limitations for rape cases has prevented the charges from being brought to trial, the alleged sexual assaults have brought many questions to light. Though the biggest question in this situation remains unanswered, did Bill Cosby commit these heinous acts?
But perhaps the biggest and most poignant question that the allegations force our society to answer is whether or not we believe those who do come forward and allege that they are victims of sexual assault.
For the most part, we don’t.
The allegations against Bill Cosby have highlighted how difficult it is for victims to come forward, and when they do come forward, to be believed. Victoria Valentino, one of the women who accuse Cosby, commented in an interview with the Washington Post that she didn’t come forward because she felt she lacked credibility, especially because of who she was speaking out against. She goes on to say, “In those days, it was always the rape victim who wound up being victimized. You didn’t want to go to the police. That’s the last thing you wanted to do back then.” Sadly, Victoria’s anecdote of her experience in speaking out is more the norm than it is an anomaly. Many victims face the fear of backlash, disbelief or the dreaded “you should have been more careful.” The credibility issue often lies in subconscious biases or societal assumptions that arise when we or others are forced to face allegations leveled against those they know or think we know.
One such bias that often threatens a victim’s credibility lies completely out of their control; the reputation of their attacker. Cosby spent decades cultivating his image as a reputable African-American father-like figure; encouraging young men and giving moral advice through his family-friendly sitcom. And when these women finally felt strong enough to come forward with their experiences, they were initially dismissed based on his social standing. Tamara Green wrote an op-ed for ET Online saying, “To go for help and be dismissed because he’s very cool and famous and you are not,” she wrote. “It is crushing and you are a victim all over again.”
When victims face so many barriers to not only being believed, but to actually getting justice, it perpetuates rape culture and keeps so many more victims silent for fear of experiencing more pain than relief in reporting. Currently, it is believed that only 32% of sexual assaults are reported to the police. To make matters worse, of every 100 rapes only 7 lead to an arrest and only 2 will lead to a felony conviction.
With these truths, many victims feel little point in coming forward, and when victims don’t report and condemn the actions of their attackers, rape and sexual assault doesn’t receive the weightiness it deserves. Far too many dialogues are drowned before they can surface; far too many people never grow to understand the nature of consent and far too many people never have the opportunity to face their own biases and assumptions about rape and rape victims.
But there is a counter-movement.
When those assaulted begin to speak out, and as people begin to believe their experiences, others are encouraged to come forward and proclaim their own stories. Donna Motsinger, another alleged victim of Cosby’s, spoke with the NY Post’s Page Six and said “I feel guilty not telling my story… Those women are brave. It’s the least I can do… I want to tell people so [the victims] can’t be bullied, so they can’t be discredited.”
Whether you believe Cosby to be guilty or not, the truth remains that as a society, we need to cultivate an environment where victims (both women and men) feel they can come forward with their experiences and be believed and even more so, receive justice. Fighting rape culture and victim shaming isn’t a short or easy battle, but it’s one that we need to wage together.