Understanding Our Reactions to the Cosby Case
By Lia Hagen
This month, after more than a decade of waiting, Andrea Constand sat at a witness stand and publicly accused Bill Cosby of drugging and assaulting her. After a period of deliberation that took longer than the arguments of both the prosecution and the defense, she received the jury’s conclusion. They were hopelessly deadlocked, and the case ended in a mistrial.
To many, this was a stumbling block on the path to justice. To others, it was a glimmer of hope for a wrongly prosecuted man. Cosby’s case will be retried and his fate decided. But his and Constand’s story isn’t just about the courts. It’s about us, too.
As dozens of women came forward to echo Constand’s accusations, members of the public were forced to choose a side. Was Cosby a beloved entertainer or a rapist? A celebrated figure who worked to advance the lives of black people, or an abuser of women? Like his actual court case, this trial of public opinion has been filled with grandstanding, misdirected nostalgia, and touching testimonies from accusers. And like Cosby’s jury, the public is currently unable to come to a conclusive decision about who this man really is.
But maybe that just means we’re asking the wrong questions.
We shouldn’t waste time debating the merits of Cosby’s body of work. We can never erase his legacy, and there’s no use in digging through his illustrious past, searching for the moment when the man became a monster. That’s something we’ll never find.
There is no “type” of person who becomes a rapist. Rapists aren’t just balding men on barstools. They don’t spend their evenings lurking in dimly lit alleys, waiting for a girl to totter over in her stilettos. Rapists are all around us. They have families and feelings. They take the subway to the restaurant and say please and thank you to the waiter. They’re not supervillains. More often than not, they’re a lot like Dr. Huxtable: likable, well-known, and seemingly normal.
Maybe that’s what’s so frightening about this case. In discussions about Cosby, I often find that people are desperate to understand how Cosby lied to the American people about who he was. But he didn’t, not really. On TV, Cosby was the father that many people didn’t have, the friend who we always wanted. He made us smile and laugh, made entire communities feel stronger.
Cosby never had to lie about who he was. In fact, he publicly admitted to giving drugs to women over a decade ago. Yet somehow, he’s still received the benefit of the doubt for all these years. People can’t believe that someone they care for would do things they can’t condone. But he has. He is a charming, talented entertainer, and he is an abuser of women. It’s not an either/or situation. He is both, and he always has been both.
Once you learn that, Constand’s trial becomes easier to understand. It’s believed that the inconsistencies in Constand’s testimony were the reason for the jury’s split decision. At first, Constand misreported the date of her assault and claimed that she had no further contact with Cosby after the incident. Many people who have not been sexually abused believe this means she’s a liar. They have never experienced how trauma alters memory, and they don’t understand why anyone would keep in contact with a rapist. But a rapist is not all that Bill Cosby was. He was someone who claimed to be Constand’s friend, someone Constand saw as a mentor. He was one of the most famous men in America and a crucial donor to her place of employment. The power dynamics in this situation are almost impossible to navigate, and, quite frankly, Constand doesn’t have to explain the way she kept herself afloat. Not if we all agree that she was drowning.
It’s difficult to understand how to engage with rapists, particularly rapists that we care about. That’s part of the reason why celebrities like Casey Affleck, Nate Parker, and Sean Penn keep receiving our love and critical acclaim. No one really knows how to reform a rapist, especially in a society where their behavior is frequently condoned or even encouraged. But that doesn’t mean we can just ignore their actions. If we don’t recognize abuse while it’s happening, we have a responsibility to address it in the after. It isn’t easy. It is, in fact, excruciatingly hard.
But we must learn to understand how someone who appears so good can do something so evil. We must understand that rapists are not caricatures. They are real people, living among us, shaped by the same culture that has shaped each of us.
If we don’t learn to see that, we’ll never be able to take an honest look at sexual violence. And we’ll never be able to tackle the issues that turned the man in the bright sweater into something considerably more sinister.
Lia Hagen is a 20-year-old creative from the cosmopolitan metropolis of Omaha, Nebraska. She is a long-time poet and President of NYU’s slam poetry organization, SLAM! At NYU. She also works as an intern at the Bowery Poetry Club and the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault. Her passions include writing fiction, creating newfangled content for the internet, and taking selfies she’ll never post.
So You Want to Interview a Survivor
Working at a rape crisis program means that I and my colleagues receive weekly requests from journalists and students to interact with survivors of sexual assault. I’ve received requests about interviewing survivors, filming survivors, photographing survivors during their sessions or group work, and following them around in their day-to-day lives for the purposes of a documentary, final project, article, or paper.
All of these requests come from kind-hearted individuals who are interested in highlighting survivor voices in whatever project they are working on. The intent is generally very positive.
Unfortunately, sometimes this intent doesn’t translate into the impact that these requests have. At times we have had reporters or writers who are working under a strict deadline and suddenly find themselves in need of a survivor, stat!
Journalists and similar media professionals adhere to a code of ethics that aim to preserve the integrity of the profession while seeking truth and reducing harm. The Society of Professional Journalists outline several major ethical codes that journalists and journalists-in-training should be adhering to, including the minimization of harm. The code states, “Journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.”¹
It says something that victims of sex crimes are specifically highlighted in this code of ethics.
More often than not, these well-intentioned requests end up having more of an exploitative impact.
Think about it this way: if rape crisis professionals are actively working with survivors of sexual violence, it is more often than not because that survivor is still healing and processing through their trauma. They are likely still working through feelings of self-blame, shame, pain, anger, and may be struggling with being believed by others. When considering these factors along with the fact that many high-profile sexual assault cases result in public abuse of the victim online, it is easy to understand the hesitancy a survivor may have in sharing their story with a wider audience.
I say none of this to shame those who are interested in highlighting these very important stories and experiences. Rather, I want to help minimize harm while still getting the information out there. So here are some basic tips on being more trauma-informed when working with survivors of sexual violence:
- First things first—ask yourself if you really NEED survivor interviews or video. Can you get the information you need from other sources? Various newspaper articles, blogs, and academic articles cover the effects of sexual violence thoroughly. If the answer to this question is no, remind yourself that your request may end up being more exploitative than originally intended.
- Ask yourself if you are starting from a point of belief—meaning, will you believe the survivor you end up working with? Or are you operating from a place of suspicion?
- Remember only 2-8% of officially reported sexual violence cases are false reports, and this includes recants from those who feel scared or intimidated by lawyers and police (this rate, by the way, is no higher than the rate of false reports for all other crimes)
- When someone is asking you to share the most traumatic experience in your life over and over again, in front of multiple people, and having your integrity, personality, and story questioned ruthlessly by attorneys or the public, it is understandable why some original reports may be withdrawn later.
- Do your research beforehand.
- It is so important to know that crimes of sexual violence are rooted in power, control, and patriarchal beliefs. Sexual violence does not stem from consumption of alcohol, has nothing to do with the victim’s behavior or outfit, and is not about sexual gratification.
- Not all sexual violence victims are women, and not all perpetrators are men.
- Start here, here, or here for your preliminary research²
- Cast a net into your own social circles first. When you consider the statistics, it is almost impossible for you to not know a survivor of sexual violence.
- Anywhere from 20-33% of female identified individuals experience an attempted or completed sexual assault in their lifetime and 10% of survivors of sexual violence are male identified. You very likely know someone who has experienced sexual violence.
- Putting out an open request on social media platforms will likely draw people who are more ready emotionally and mentally to talk about their experiences on a public forum.
- Always ask the survivor if something is okay with them first.
- Whenever possible, send the survivor the questions you plan to ask and be ready to share with them the reason and goals behind your project.
- Give them permission to not answer the questions they are uncomfortable with.
- Ask them when and where they would like to talk with you—give them control over how, where, and when the conversation goes down.
- Ask them permission if you can film/record them first!
- Don’t be pushy.
- You should never guilt a survivor who isn’t okay with a certain question or aspect of your interview or project (i.e., If they don’t want you to film them in a counseling session you should not ask again).
- Learn to be okay with whatever boundaries the survivor sets up—just because you had your heart set on recording a session does not mean you’ll get that from a survivor
- Offer to keep the survivor anonymous by giving them a fake name (and note that in your project whenever possible).
Overall, just be respectful and non-judgmental about whatever the survivor may need. Work with rape crisis professionals whenever it is appropriate and please understand that we cannot hand out survivor information as it is our responsibility to maintain confidentiality and protect the identities of our clients. If ever you are not sure whether something you want to say or do is appropriate, reach out to a rape crisis professional and ask! We are happy to help raise awareness in a sensitive and trauma-informed way.
Hopefully this helps keep you trauma-informed while completing your interviews, articles, and projects.