It’s an easy thing to say: just tell the truth. Tell it immediately, without bias, lacking emotionality, to everyone.
Even in our daily interactions, we do not always tell the truth. Often in fear of hurting others, being hurt, getting fired, being told your truth was never worth sharing.
However, when it comes to people in the public eye, it has become all too easy and commonplace to assume guilt through someone’s silence. In fact, this is the very argument Monique Pressley, Bill Cosby’s lawyer, uses to discredit the more than 50 women who have come forward accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault:
[Women] have responsibility for our bodies, we have responsibility for our decisions, we have responsibility for the way we conduct ourselves.
The only way for a woman to get the justice that she seeks — and that, if her allegation is true, that she deserves — is to come forward [soon after the crime]. And even if the reasons that the women did not do that are legitimate ones, what cannot happen — in my opinion, in the United States — is that 40 years later there is a persecution tantamount to a witch hunt where there was no prosecution timely and there was no civil suit timely. And there’s not any testimony or any accusation from any of these women that Mr. Cosby in any way bound them, gagged them, prevented them from coming forward and saying whatever their truth was at the time. That’s not what happened. (Gothamist)
Here, we are told that truth becomes less so the longer we hold onto it. It is also clear that what is at stake here more than anything, transcending truth or guilt, is a man’s legacy and reputation. Pressley’s distasteful use of rape tactics as rhetoric to describe coming forward about rape proves that. Apparently, the truth is never the truth if it can be used as a weapon.
Well, here’s more truth: “46% of rapists who were released from prison were re-arrested within 3 years of their release for another crime;” including the incidents that go unreported, 2% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail; 1 in 5 women in America will be sexually assaulted. Why is it so impossible to believe that these women could be telling the truth?
When America’s pandemic rape culture makes victims of sexual assault their own perpetrators — blaming their choice in clothes, how much they had to drink, how late they were out, etc. — who wouldn’t want to forego silence?
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In the era of social media, this creates an even more heinous breeding ground for backlash against vocal survivors. There’s a Facebook page called “We Stand With Cosby” complete with its own hashtag. People have taken to twitter to defend Cosby (#BillCosby) and use the word “alleged” with purposefully reckless abandon, saying these women knew what they were getting into. From what I’ve seen, though, no one who supports Cosby can seem to use the words “sexual assault,” “rape,” and/or “drugged” in the same sentence as “innocent until proven guilty.” These women stay faceless, bodiless, nameless. It’s almost as if admitting that these women are real live human beings would complicate their blind faith in a man they don’t know.
We see the same thing being played out in the aftermath of the recent death of queer/fashion/music icon, David Bowie. Many fans are willing to overlook the sexual assault allegation levied against him in the late 1980s because of his many contributions to the art and entertainment world.
Fact: it’s easier to honor a man if we ignore his heavily problematic past. Fact: in 1987, David Bowie faced rape accusations by a 30 year old woman in Texas, not Lori Maddox. And, though legally Bowie was guilty of statutory rape, Maddox has stated that her sexual relationship was consensual.
However, there are still those who would deny Bowie’s wrongdoings. In an essay posted on Dear Coquette, a fan writes, “At 15, Lori did not look or act like a child. She looked and acted like a fully developed woman … She knew damn well what she was doing, and I’m okay with that.”
Now, let’s say Mattix did consent to sex with Bowie. He is still guilty of statutory rape. He is still guilty of using his fame and status to take advantage of a girl possibly too young to understand the emotional and psychological weight of having sex with a grown man. It is convenient to claim a 15 year-old’s sexual autonomy when it means not having to question your fave. Britni De La Cretaz writes:
[W]hen you celebrate or excuse rapists, you tell people like me that I don’t matter; you tell all survivors that they don’t matter … that their rapists matter more because of what they contributed to the world, regardless of what they took from them.
Both Bowie and Cosby have fans, namely men, who are willing to give him a pass to keep their heroes safe on a pedestal. It’s more important that these icons’ reputation and legacy to be protected than the women/girls they assaulted and took advantage of. They’d prefer these victims choose infinite silence.
As a victim of sexual assault myself, at the hands of a Black man, who never went to the police about my rapist, I can understand choosing silence.
I chose silence because: I didn’t want my parents to know; I didn’t think the police would or could do anything; I didn’t want to see or face my assailant again; I didn’t think my testimony would hold up in court because I voluntarily went to this man’s house; and I didn’t want to ruin this Black man’s future as a foreign engineering student at Columbia.
It was more important to me that I protect the people in my life, my assailant, than protect myself. I imagined my parents’ devastation at learning their little girl had been raped. It was a weight I assumed they couldn’t carry, so I shouldered it all. I imagined taking this case to court, the evidence not being enough to get my rapist behind bars. I imagined being told I was disappointing the Black community by ruining the reputation of a potentially important pioneer.
My choices seemed few and divisive. I didn’t think anyone would hold me up.
And, in sadly unsurprising news for the Black community, Cosby’s supporters are very often Black men. We have seen this before. In the Black Lives Matter movement, thousands will come out to protest the murder of Black men but won’t show up to protest the murder of Black women. Their advocacy an attempt at dismantling anti-Blackness while still upholding women’s oppression and invisibility.
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On my Facebook timeline, I have come across Black men claiming these women have come forward at an opportune time as Cosby was in the middle of a deal with NBC. These men say we need to assume Cosby is innocent until proven guilty because that is what the law calls for — the same law they know and see as corrupt in the wake of the hundreds of Black men and women killed by police officers.
And, to a certain extent, I understand their hurt.
They herald Cosby as a champion of the Black community given his financial success — though, more probable, due to their inability to separate Cosby from his portrayal of America’s Favorite Father, Dr. Huxtable. There aren’t many successful people of color in the public eye besides Oprah and Barack Obama, not many representations of Black excellence in non-entertainment or sports-related businesses, and barely any representation of Black heroes or survivors in fictional realms.
But when does your fave become problematic enough to stop calling them your fave?
Why are only men capable of getting the benefit of the doubt? At what point do we take any survivor’s word at face value? How and when do we get to decide whose trauma is real?
Jewel Allison, one of the more recent women to come forward about being drugged and assaulted by Cosby in the ’80s, wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post:
His accusers – mostly white, so far – have faced retaliation, humiliation and skepticism by coming forward. As an African American woman, I felt the stakes for me were even higher. Historic images of black men being vilified en masse as sexually violent sent chills through my body. Telling my story wouldn’t only help bring down Cosby; I feared it would undermine the entire African American community. (forharriet)
We also mustn’t overlook the trope of the strong Black women which perpetuates our silence through a damaging rhetoric purporting our unending bravery; we can withstand trauma without having to ask for help, without having to ever talking about it.
We just soldier on.
This has made being vocal about Cosby doubly damning for Black women. Who wants to be the Black woman who destroyed the ideal Black man, father, and entrepreneur? So, I can understand why someone might come forward only after decades had passed.
After years of healing and doing the work to decolonize my own mind and body, I now feel capable and comfortable talking about my assault. And I’d like to think that, if I had felt this way right after my assault, I would have gone to the police.
Let’s imagine this on a more micro scale. How often do we replay in our heads all the things we could have said to someone after a fight or miscommunication but didn’t because we didn’t have the language for it in the moment? Then, finally — sometimes even months later — we come up with the perfect retort but feel like the time to speak up has come and gone?
Even if we feel like we should speak up, we don’t for fear of our truth being dismissed, that someone will say, “If you felt this strongly, you should’ve said something right when it happened.” As if communicating hurt is ever an easy feat.
More recently, the attorneys for Bill Cosby have called for a dismissal of assault charges placed against him in December 2015, stating that the prosecutors have violated the “terms under which [Cosby] gave a deposition in a civil lawsuit a decade ago.” Also, Cosby has come forward to say seven women who have accused him are lying. Seven out of over 50. Neither of these are admissions of guiltlessness, mind you. It’s time to rethink who and what we support.
Is Bill Cosby’s legacy worth more protection than the women he has hurt?[Feature Image: There is a black and white portrait David Bowie on the left in this image Bowie is in younger with long hair as he head rests in his chin and he stares ahead with a cigarette in hand. On the right there is a black and white portrait of younger Bill Cosby. He is wearing a button down shirt, tie and blazer while looking off to the side.]