Bill Cosby Doesn't Think He's a Rapist. Here's Why That Matters.
On Sunday, New York magazine published a blockbuster article featuring testimonies from 35 of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assault victims. As fate would have it, the article, which took six months to report, came on the heels of the release of Cosby's damning deposition from a mid-2000s lawsuit brought by plaintiff Andrea Constand, one of the 46 women to have accused the disgraced comedian of rape or sexual assault.
At this point, most rational people would call Cosby a rapist. Except, probably, for Cosby.
"He viewed himself as a good person, worthy of trust and chivalrous," the New York Times reported after reviewing the deposition. Regarding consent, Cosby said while under oath, "I think that I'm a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things." He later admitted to using quaaludes "the same as a person would say, 'Have a drink.'"
There is the person we really are, and there is the story we tell about ourselves. Cosby's story of himself is not of a serial violator of women but a successful man women invariably wanted, and to whom certain things — among them women's bodies — were owed.
It's easy, now, to say Cosby is a monster. It's easy to point out the hypocrisy of a "public moralist" being likely guilty of such heinous crimes. It's harder to admit that Cosby's mindset, however demonstrably abhorrent, is nothing new. It's harder to admit that while Cosby's fame, money and entourage enabled him to commit his alleged crimes at a rate more staggering than most, the system that let him live so much of his life unscathed, and to so readily assert his lack of blame, is the same one that underpins most sexual assaults across this country.
The truth is, Cosby is not some especially evil snowflake. Slipping a woman a quaalude in order to have sex with her is not that different from keeping her cup overflowing at a frat party in order to have sex with her. Cosby's abuse of power took place on a particularly public stage, but it's not that different from that committed by "mentors" throughout STEM fields, sports, politics or media. This doesn't excuse Cosby's crimes in the least; it means that to appreciate their horror, one must confront the pervasive reality of rape culture.
This isn't easy. To admit rape culture exists means acknowledging the number of people it has hurt. It means you've probably met a rape victim. It means that person (or persons) probably never reported the crime. It means you might have met a rapist, too. It means you probably didn't notice. It means most rapists are not obvious ogres who carry knives and lurk in alleyways. It means they can look like America's dad. It means Cosby is not a monster. It means he's just a man. Human beings are capable of terrible things.
This is scary. It's easier to assert that women lie about rape for money or attention, or that rape victims were to blame for what happened to them, or that rapists deserved someone else's body. That's what Cosby believed.
"If these women agreed to meet up ... [Cosby] felt that he had a right to them," Noreen Malone wrote in the introduction to the New York magazine piece. Some of Cosby's victims believed it too. "Part of what took the accusations against Cosby so long to surface is that this belief extended to many of the women themselves," Malone continues.
This idea of a "right" to a woman is reinforced all the time — from questions about what a woman was wearing to warrant an assault, to media messages that women's experiences are secondary to men's sexual "needs," to the widely repeated trope that women are prizes to be won. Society routinely treats women like products for consumption, just as it teaches men that women owe them sex and attention.
No wonder some of the women interviewed reported not understanding that what had happened to them was rape at all — a relatively common experience among rape victims.
"I didn't realize that I had been raped," one woman told the magazine. "There was no date rape back then."
"In 1975, it wasn't an issue that was even discussed. Rape was being beaten up in a park," said another.
"It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that it was him. It wasn't me," said a third.
People sometimes say feminists want to expand our definition of rape and sexual assault, but this isn't true. We want to expand our understanding of rape and sexual assault, so that the painful confusion these women experienced stops happening. A husband forcing an unwilling wife to have sex has always been a violation, even if took until 1993 for every state to recognize it as such. Likewise, drugging a woman or plying her with liquor until she can't say yes and then having sex with her has always been rape, regardless of there being "no date rape" in our collective consciousness until more recent history.
It's disturbing that a concept as simple as "sex without consent is rape" is still so often misunderstood. Data from studies conducted in 2002 and 2009, for example, showed that rephrasing questions to describe an act of rape without using the word itself led some men to admit to being rapists — the implication being that #notallmen actually understand what constitutes sexual assault. Not all women do either: One 2014 sociological study, for example, found that, for many middle and high school-aged girls, sexual violence and harassment is considered "normal stuff" that "guys do." Rape culture muddles the concept of consent by filling people with the idea that women are ever asking for rape, or that men ever deserve to commit it.
If nothing else, I'm thankful that today the women interviewed now have the clarity that what was done to them was wrong. And if responses to the article are any indication, it seems after 30 years of accusations, public opinion has finally, unequivocally condemned Cosby. There is, of course, bound to be a death rattle from rape apologists in the dark corners of the Internet, but it will soon be drowned out; as the public understanding of consent grows, so too, will the chorus of victims — not necessarily because more people are being sexually assaulted, but because more may recognize their experiences for what they were, or feel emboldened by the stories of other survivors to speak up.
As actress and model Beverly Johnson told the magazine, "The part of it I wasn't prepared for was the onslaught of women that have been assaulted and them telling me their story because I told mine."
I hope stories like Johnson's make other survivors feel less alone. But I also can't help but think that if there are people who don't realize they've been raped, there must be people who don't yet understand they are rapists. I wonder if any of them will hear these women's stories, and finally be forced to reckon with their own.
July 28, 2015, 6:30 p.m.: This article has been updated.