Rape and sexual assault are always abhorrent. But it’s even more chilling when we hear these evils are being done by people who we really thought were good. The hypocrites. The wolves in sheep’s clothing. The priests and ministers. The foster parents. The teachers and coaches. Now, tragically, we can add America’s Dad to the list.
Bill Cosby’s rape allegations are deeply troubling. While all of the cases are many years old and have little evidence to support a lawsuit, it’s impossible to deny the similarity of the stories coming from different women in different corners of show business. It’s impossible to deny the horror of one man’s confession that he helped set up and clean up Cosby’s many rapey affairs. For anyone who has read up on the story (at this time at least 20 people have come forward with allegations), it’s now quite impossible to see Cosby for anything other than a man who used success to support his lifestyle of luring, drugging, and raping women, most of whom were budding actresses he had offered to help in their careers. I used to like Cosby’s comedy, but now I can’t support it. He literally used it to fuel his abuse—to manipulate women who looked up to him for guidance into power relationships, exploit them, and bet on their silence. His career connected him with an endless supply of young women entering the entertainment field. He benefited from their viewing him as a safe, friendly dad figure. You cannot separate his work from his abuse.
There are a few things we can take away from this horrible news. First, that we are living in a world with a serious rape and sexual assault problem. And not just out in the disadvantaged corners of society, but also in the successful and socially accepted spheres—the wealthy, the respected, those with high rank. It would appear the epidemic of sexual indecency does not discriminate. It might even flourish better there, undetected.
This also serves to remind us to snap out of thinking rapists are shadowy dudes in the dark alley. Beware of those, for sure. But research shows most rapists are people one knows before the encounter.
Which is why this is also an important reminder not to brush off claims of sexual abuse when we like the person accused. Rapists are often sexual predators who have a knack at appearing smooth and charming. They can be esteemed in the community, preying on the underprivileged. So when we hear of someone we respected being accused of rape, contrary to shrugging it off, we should take it all the more seriously. We should listen to the accounts all the more carefully. We should look all the more closely at the facts.
Perhaps most of all, this news provides us with an occasion to settle some misunderstandings about sexual assault and rape. To answer some questions, such as: Why do women often report rape later than it occurred?
One woman alleges Cosby gave her a strong drink, after which she had blacked out, and awoke to find him trying to rape her. When she tried to stop him by saying she had an STD, he forced her to give him oral sex. In a cringeworthy display of ignorance, one television host suggested, “there are ways to not give oral sex.”
So allow me to elucidate things for you.
Why do women often make rape allegations long after they’ve occurred? It’s a complex answer. Not unlike, why don’t domestic violence victims just leave their abusers? Why don’t sex-trafficked women just leave their pimps? These are hard questions. But deep down we know there’s an answer. There’s a dark, confusing number of reasons. After all, there wouldn’t be a “Special Victims Unit” on Law & Order if sexual crimes weren’t significantly more complicated.
This is because, when it comes to sexual abuse, the physical and mental factors are very closely intertwined. Many predators groom victims with long periods of isolation and manipulation before making sexual contact. Many victims experience a sense of helplessness and loss of control that can leave them feeling disoriented and in shock. Many are intimidated by their rapist and fear no one would believe them, or feel that the shame of the encounter would hurt their reputation. Some have been literally threatened not to tell, or else harm will come to their loved ones. Sometimes they even feel partly to blame, concentrating on whatever actions they took that preceded the assault. Rape isn’t just a bodily assault. It assaults the mind as well.
It can be hard for some people to understand why many women don’t just up and leave a situation of sexual assault. And, to be fair, it’s a very confusing problem. For many—including many among Cosby’s alleged victim—it’s hard because they were drugged or passed out. End of story. But even for cases without drugging, there’s a problem with viewing rape scenarios as confrontations to be overpowered. What’s missing is how disarming a crime it is in the moment. There’s a significant fear factor. When confronted with a threat, we know the common responses are fight, flight, or freeze, and, sadly with rape, freeze is very common. There is no way we can blame someone for this.
It can also be very sticky issue in our casual sex culture. Many women already know their perpetrators, and there can be significant social pressures to submit to undesired advances. He’s your boss, and you don’t want to lose your job. He’s a famous person of influence like Cosby, and you’re afraid he could hurt your career aspirations. He's the big guy on campus, and you're worried you'll be blamed if your university suspends Greek life (as recently happened at the University of Virginia after a report of alleged gang rape). Or he’s just a man who’s stronger than you, and you fear what he’d do if you thwart his immediate desires. Here we have the common gray-rape phenomenon, where a woman submits to the situation just to “get it over with.”
To add to the complicated nature of this crime, all sorts of coping mechanisms come into play, and they can be very difficult to unravel. There’s disassociation, where the victim copes by imagining they aren’t experiencing it but are rather observing it. Then there’s self-blame, where, in an effort to cling to some semblance of control, many women convince themselves it was their choice after all. It is common for women to not realize an encounter was a rape until long after, upon attending something like Take Back the Night on campus and hearing other women describe their experiences. Getting out of one’s head and reaching out to others has a way of making the scales fall from one’s eyes.
Does this mean a lot of women could be fabricating rape allegations to screw someone over? While certainly possible, this snap judgment is very problematic. When someone makes an allegation about child abuse, Child Protective Services investigates the home. False allegations can occur, and CPS knows that, but no one—NO ONE—would suggest that should be the first thought. Yes, people are innocent until proven guilty, in this country. But we have a long history of law enforcement acknowledging this, at the same time as taking allegations seriously. Rape shouldn’t be an exception.
Because that, my friends, would be sexist rape culture at work. That ugly tendency to blame the woman before the man when she has been assaulted. It’s a powerfully common impulse, but it’s wrong. It can start out with someone pointing out her clothes, as we know too well, but it’s not far down that path until someone says, as I heard someone say about the Steubenville case—when a passed-out, high-school girl was video-recorded being raped—“Why was she hanging out with those guys to begin with?” Really? As if it’s reasonable for someone to walk into a setting among peers and foresee the scenario turning into a gang rape? It’s one thing to encourage women to be cautious; it’s another thing when blame-the-girl thoughts are our first thoughts. At those moments we have to stop ourselves and remember: Rapists want women to feel like it’s their fault. Domestic abusers manipulate women into believing it is. In fact, sexual predators bet on cultural stigmatization to keep their victims quiet. It’s our choice not to let them. Cosby was successful at this for decades. Ignorantly or not, if we contribute to this thinking that it’s the woman’s fault, we are contributing to the problem that keeps rapists successful.
No doubt, as Bill Cosby’s story unfolds, the nation will continue to be disgusted and shocked. This is also why there’s no better time than now to increase understanding about the reality of this growing problem in society. We would do well to stop letting our ignorance perpetuate the problem.
This article has been edited from its original version.