In October of last year, stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress performed a routine about the various sexual assault allegations that had piled up over the years against famed comedian and actor Bill Cosby. Video of the routine went viral, and, since then, dozens of women have come forward to accuse Cosby of sexual misconduct. To date, Cosby has been publicly accused of raping, groping, drugging, or otherwise sexually assaulting at least 40 different women over a decades-long span of predatory behavior. Now, for the first time since the disturbing allegations surfaced, the embattled comedian is finally facing criminal prosecution for felony sexual assault. But what took so long to get to this point?
The first sexual assault allegations against Cosby surfaced in 2000, when the New York Post reported that Lachele Covington, a former “Cosby Show” extra, had accused him of molesting her. Over the next fifteen years, allegations against the comedian received coverage in mainstream venues ranging from Gawker and the Smoking Gun to People magazine, Newsweek, and “The Today Show“.
Despite years of public allegations, Cosby himself never suffered damage to his reputation nor did he lose his status as one of America’s most beloved comedians—a position of power and status that intimidated his victims, and often ensured that their accusations would be discredited and ignored. It was only recently — after the Associated Press and The New York Times obtained previously-sealed court documents revealing Cosby’s admission in a 2005 deposition that he gave the sedative Quaalude to at least one woman with whom he intended to have sex — that the realization began to dawn on many people that perhaps they should have believed so many women over so many years.
Why did it take so long for us, a society, to start caring? And why did we decide, in the first place, to collectively plug our ears against 15 years of mounting evidence?
The reasons that so many have not been able to imagine Cosby/Dr. Huxtable as a rapist is that the American imagination has been and still is captive to stereotypes of gender, race and even socioeconomic class. These stereotypes have combined to promote disbelief of the many women who have said over many years that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted or raped them.
Gender stereotyping plays a major role in our collective response to rape and rape victims. Disbelief of women reporting rape is widespread, as evidenced by the erroneous yet pervasive belief that false rape accusations are common, when in reality they are extremely rare. If you need more proof of the influence of gender, consider the fact that, despite years of public allegations made by multiple women, it took a joke from Buress, a male comedian, for the allegations to resurface and reenter the public domain in a serious way.
Indeed, women as well as men have a tendency to believe that rape is at least partially the woman’s fault. On the one hand, this view is as old as Eve being blamed for getting herself and Adam expelled from the Garden of Eden. But on the other, for some women such views are in part self-protective: “It won’t happen to me, because those women were bad.” There’s even a name for this psychological phenomena: the “just world effect,” which describes the tendency to believe that the world is fair and just, and that people get what they deserve. Because people want to believe that the world is fair, they will look for ways to explain or rationalize away injustice – often by blaming the victim. Otherwise, women would have to confront the terrifying reality that rape can and does happen to anyone — a reality that is so distressing that it triggers unconscious psychological defense mechanisms.
For men, the reason that women are to blame may be quite different — after all, it’s not just Rush Limbaugh who believes “no means yes.” According to a 2008 study, many college men interpret “no” as “yes” during sexual encounters with women, in part because “they ascribe their own attitudes about sex onto what their female partners attempt to communicate to them.” In other words, “when she says ‘It’s getting late,’ he may hear ‘So let’s skip the preliminaries,'” said researcher Michael Motley, who led the 2008 study. “The problem is that he is interpreting what she said by trying to imagine what he would mean — and the only reason he can imagine saying ‘It’s getting late’ while making out is to mean ‘Let’s speed things up.'”
Even when women explicitly use the word “no”, many men still interpret ambiguity in their statement. For example, a 2014 nationwide study conducted in Australia found that about one in six people (about 15 percent of the population) believe that “women often say ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’.” The same study also found that more than one in three people (nearly 40 percent of the population) agreed that “a lot of times women who say they were raped led the man on and later had regrets”. Research provides some insight into the origins of these skewed perceptions of consent. According to a 2009 study, men who place a low value on gender equality and who subscribe to rigid, stereotypical gender role beliefs are most likely to believe that a rape victim actually consented, even though she said “no”.
Race also plays a huge role in shaping American attitudes toward rape, and it cannot be ignored in the ongoing analysis of why this particular accused rapist has mostly been believed, while his alleged victims have not. In fact, race –and racism–have influenced the very meaning of the term ‘rape’ in both legal and social contexts.
There has never really been a commonly accepted, legal definition of rape in the United States; that a candidate in the 2012 elections used the term “legitimate rape” tells us a lot about our society’s conceptualization of the crime. It was only in 2012, in fact, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation revised its definition of rape from “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” to include any form of forced sexual penetration of a man or a woman, and to include “non-forcible rape.”
The struggle to define rape as a crime is deeply embedded in our nation’s struggles with race, gender and economic inequality. While rape has been successfully prosecuted in American history, these charges and convictions have been highly dependent on political, racial, and economic factors, as Estelle B. Freedman describes in her book Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation. Freedman argues that the effort to define and thus prosecute rape is a struggle for who gets to be a citizen in the United States, and thus who gets to write law. The redefining of rape throughout American history therefore represents an ongoing struggle, Freedman argues, undertaken by “generations of women’s rights and racial justice advocates” who “have contested the narrow understanding of rape as a brutal attack on a chaste, unmarried white woman by a stranger, typically portrayed as an African American male.” The history of slavery, and Jim Crow laws, have contributed to the history of defining rape as legal on the bodies of slave women, and as a pretext for lynching in the post-emancipation backlash, and as a “private matter” in more recent times.
This racialized history of rape is a crucial factor in the Cosby scandal. As poet and author Jewel Allison wrote in a powerful essay earlier this year, “Bill Cosby sexually assaulted me. I didn’t tell because I didn’t want to let black America down… I let race trump rape.” Allison realized all too well her own, and the African-American community’s, desire to protect Cosby’s friendly image and not feed the racist stereotype of the black male as rapist. “Black people are sensitive to the fact that, for centuries, images of African American men as threats to white women have been used to justify oppressing them,” she wrote. “Telling my story wouldn’t only help bring down Cosby; I feared it would undermine the entire African American community.”
But white America has also wanted Cosby to be Dr. Huxtable, the caring doctor, the loving dad, and, above all, the nonthreatening, successful, middle-class African American, though clearly for very different reasons than the African-American community. “The Cosby Show” was a show about black people that was unequivocally and deliberately friendly to white America. The Huxtables had white friends; Cliff, a doctor, had white patients; Clair, a lawyer, had white clients and white colleagues; the kids had white friends.
But there was more to it than that: the show appealed to white America not just because it featured familiar white culture, but because it created a version of black America that allowed white audiences to avoid any uncomfortable questions about racism and white privilege — indeed, race was absent from the show to an extent that at times defied credulity. This was intentional. As co-creator and executive producer of the show, Cosby has admitted that the show deliberately avoided mentioning racism and racial conflict for fear of alienating whites. He says if it had done so even once, every white viewer would have felt “this was set up to make you feel like you’re the villain“.
The version of black America presented by “The Cosby Show” invited white audiences to buy into the harmful myth that the problems of the Black community are the fault of the Black community alone. This came in the midst of the racialized politics of the Reagan administration, in which racist stereotypes about the black female “welfare queen” and the absent black father were used to generate support for economic policies that disproportionately harmed African Americans. Yet in the “Cosby” world, white viewers were never asked to think about the racialized nature of economic opportunity and mobility in the United States, nor did they have to confront hard questions such as how they had benefited from the same American systems from which black Americans had not. In other words, white America could have both its Reaganomics and its racism validated by “The Cosby Show.” Any African-American family not able to make it in Reagan’s America had only themselves to blame.
Blinded by Stereotypes
And so “The Cosby Show”, and Cosby himself, is a reflection of the operation of these intersecting stereotypes that keep many in the U.S., often for very different reasons, blind to the realities of sexual violence against women. As Brittney Cooper wrote in Salon, “Far too often, racism becomes an excuse for us not to confront sexism. And internalized misogyny and victim-blaming keep Americans from ostracizing the Woody Allens and Charlie Sheens of the world.”
In a January 2015 poll by Public Policy Polling, 41 percent of Americans were still unsure of whether they believed Cosby was guilty of sexual assault. That our skepticism and desire to excuse or explain away his behavior was so profound — and so wrong — even when we have seen the faces of 40+ accusers should give us pause from now on every single time even one woman steps forward. Just think for a moment: If so many women have come forward, how many other women may have silenced themselves because they feared, and rightly so, that they would not be believed about the alleged actions of Bill Cosby?
So much suffering comes from our failure as a nation to reject our various stereotypes of gender, race and class and really see violence against women for what it is: Wrong.