Few subjects can spark such sharp divisiveness and heated rhetoric as a high-profile sexual assault scandal. The recent allegations against Bill Cosby have all the ingredients to create a media firestorm and a furious public debate. The story boasts provocative details, a long list of accusers, and the potential undoing of an American icon. Some of the dividing lines in this debate are racial, gender-based, and even economic on some levels. The public will probably never know the full and complete truth because, presumably, Mr. Cosby will not be charged with any crime because of the time that has passed. Nevertheless, the charged conversations that have emerged as a result of the Cosby story can teach us a lot more about ourselves than we ever wanted to know.
What came first, being black or being female?
When this story first broke, a number of individuals asked about my opinion of the allegations. Most of my associates presume me to be “militant” and therefore expected a sufficiently “militant” reply. They expected me to rail against the mostly white accusers and their supposedly vicious lies. They expected me to staunchly defend Dr. Cosby as a highly respected bastion of African-American leadership. They would’ve preferred me to label the whole situation as a smear campaign, maliciously aimed at muddying Bill Cosby’s good name. This time I would not live up to their expectations.
It’s hard to form an opinion with no facts and all hearsay (at least it’s hard for some of us). The Cosby narrative boils down to his word versus hers (multiple hers in this case) in the most literal sense of the term; and when I try to form an opinion I come into direct conflict with myself. Too often these pop culture celebrity scandals leave Black women, in particular, in a precarious situation especially when the accused is a prominent Black man. If you speak out against the man, your solidarity with the race is questioned. If you speak out against his accuser(s), you risk letting down fellow feminists of all creeds and colors. As a result, many women of color remain silent. The fact of the matter is that we must accept that it is possible for great men to commit terrible acts. We also know that all women are not perfect and sometimes women lie. The important thing here is not for us to decide Cosby’s innocence or guilt; rather the most important takeaway is how we as a society talk about and respond to the alleged victims of sexual assault and rape.
Whether one believes the accusers or not, each woman’s voice must be heard. We do a disservice to every victim of sexual assault when our first response is to immediately dismiss an accuser. We have no idea what the facts are in this case, but here is something that we know for sure: one in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime and only about 40% of all rapes and sexual assaults are ever reported according to the U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey. To effectively quell the voice of the accusers by attempting to shame and discredit them can have dire consequences on a generation that already has a poor track record when it comes to creating an environment that encourages victims to seek justice.
What does this mean for young women?
My greatest fear about how we react to the Cosby news is what our reactions tell young women about our value system and our culture. If we fail to bear witness to and give credence to the stories of these fifteen women, then what will we tell our daughters when they muster up the courage to come forward and tell their truth? Instead of continually asking why these women waited so long to come forward, we would do better to encourage younger women to heed their example and not wait to report when they feel that they have been attacked. Instead of assuming that these women are conspiring to bring down a powerful man, we must consider the possibility that many women speak out as an act of reclamation of their own personal power. They are freeing themselves from the stigma of victimhood and this usually has very little to do with their alleged attacker. As troublesome as current events have been for the lives of Cosby and his accusers, the general public has a grand opportunity to repair the manner in which we talk about rape and we may even be able to improve the way that we treat victims of sexual assault.
Perhaps even more important, what does this teach young men?
As a mother of sons, I am acutely aware of how quickly a seemingly innocent situation can turn into a nightmare for all involved. In my own home, there have been prickly conversations about unspoken language and consent. To borrow a saying from a friend, I have made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that no girl ever owes my son’s erect penis anything. Ever. Period. This rather blunt and frank language is necessary in a culture that prefers to cloak rape and sexual assault under the cover innuendo and slut-shaming.
When we have conversations about rape in this country, too often we focus on the victims’ motives, attire, behavior, and alcohol intake. As a parent, I am actually insulted at the lack of responsibility that we place upon boys. I physically cringe every time that I hear comments like, “boys will be boys” or “all men are dogs”. It almost insinuates that by virtue of having been born with a penis and not a vagina, boys are somehow naturally inclined to behave as animals, exhibiting no self-control. It’s as if the moment that a young man is exposed to a short skirt and an ounce of alcohol, he forgets everything that he has been taught about self-respect and is suddenly absolved of all expectations that he will behave respectfully. This type of thinking is simply wrong and has to change. Our approach to the Cosby incident can either reinforce this backwards thinking or propel us on to a new path.
Right now in America, there is a talented, gifted, exceptional young man watching this story unfold. Perhaps he is an aspiring actor, doctor, athlete, or entertainer. Maybe Dr. Cosby is one of his personal heroes. Maybe he never knew much about Bill Cosby until the recent story broke. Undoubtedly, young women will cross his path on his rise towards success. If and when he finds himself in a “sticky” situation with one of those young ladies, how will he respond? What–are we teaching him?