Moment of truth for Cosby
By Cathy Young
Every day, it seems, there is a new sexual assault allegation against Bill Cosby. Women who first accused him years ago, and whose stories are getting a new hearing, are being joined by others only now coming forward. While the legendary 77-year-old actor and comedian remains silent and his career totters on the brink of collapse, the scandal raises many uncomfortable questions about justice and the court of public opinion — questions made even more difficult by the dynamics of race, gender and politics.
At this point, as many as 18 women have publicly said Cosby raped or sexually assaulted them, often after drugging them. Several of those women gave statements in 2005 as witnesses in a civil complaint against Cosby by Andrea Constand, former director of operations for the Temple University women’s basketball team. There were nine more, unidentified women who were willing to testify in support of Constand’s suit, which Cosby eventually settled.
The only evidence for these claims is the women’s own words. (Constand is the only one who made a police report, and the authorities determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed.) Given that the attacks are alleged to have taken place between 12 and 45 years ago, it is safe to assume that no other evidence is forthcoming. Unless Cosby confesses, or some of the women recant, we will never know what really happened. The sheer number of accusers certainly makes their stories more powerful. Yet it is also true that publicity around sensational accusations, especially against a famous person, can serve as a magnet for fame-seeking copycats.
Does the fact that the women waited years to come forward — and, in some cases, maintained some form of relationship with Cosby and accepted money from him after the alleged assaults — discredit their stories? Not necessarily. The women were unknowns; Cosby was an American icon, his stature all the greater because he was the first African-American actor to achieve such mainstream stardom. And it was a different era. Until the mid-1970s, jurors in rape trials in California were instructed that a woman’s “unchaste” behavior, such as using birth control while single, could be used in weighing her credibility.
While some rape victims in those days managed to see justice done, the deck was certainly stacked against them. Right now, we are in a cultural moment when some say the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme: questioning accusations of rape or sexual abuse is often seen as tantamount to being pro-rape.
The claims against Cosby have become a magnet for polarizing gender politics. Some, including one of Cosby’s accusers, see sexist bias because the outcry against him began only after a man, comedian Hannibal Buress, trumpeted the rape claims. But stories often reach a tipping point for many complex reasons; the fact that Buress’ comedy-show tirade against Cosby made for a dramatic video clip probably played a role — as did the fact that Burres is a fellow black entertainer. Meanwhile, New Republic writer Rebecca Traister sees misogyny in Cosby’s critiques of single parenthood, even though he was tougher on absentee dads than unwed moms.
In this politicized atmosphere, the allegations against Cosby deserve a respectful hearing — but not an uncritical one. It’s entirely possible, for instance, that some accusations are true and some are not.
In the end, the tragic truth is that regardless of the facts, this story has no happy ending. Either Cosby is a serial rapist who will escape legal accountability, or an innocent man whose reputation is destroyed.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics. She wrote this for Newsday.