Culture

Bill Cosby Is An Alleged Serial Rapist. So, Now What?

CREDIT: Evan Vucci/AP

Bill Cosby has nothing to say.

Plenty of people — fourteen women in particular — have quite a lot to say about Bill Cosby. They say things like, “through the haze I thought I was being clever when I told him I had an infection and he would catch it and his wife would know he had sex with someone. But he just found another orifice to use. I was sickened by what was happening to me and shocked that this man I had idolized was now raping me.” They say that “he pinned me down in his own bed while I screamed for help. I’ll never forget the clinking of his belt buckle as he struggled to pull his pants off.”

Bill Cosby was asked directly about these allegations, which are resurfacing yet again due to a stand-up routine gone viral. When NPR Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon said, “This question gives me no pleasure, Mr. Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days,” Bill Cosby responded, as the transcript shows, with “[SILENCE].”

So, now what?

Bill Cosby won’t address the issue. The closest thing to a response from him was this statement his lawyer, John P. Schmitt, shared on Saturday, which explicitly described the allegations as “discredited” and said “The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true.” That statement disappeared from Cosby’s site two days later and was replaced with a joint statement from Cosby’s lawyer and Dolores Troiani, counsel to Andrea Constand, whose 2004 lawsuit against Cosby, in which she claimed he sexually assaulted her, was settled for an undisclosed amount two years later. Both of Cosby’s statements concluded by saying, essentially, that he has nothing else to say. In the face of his refusal to comment, what happens next? Where do these women, and the people who believe them, go from here?

To find out, I spoke with Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the country.

Now that so many of these allegations are public, what’s next? Where do these women go from here? Is legal recourse an option for any of them?

On the legal side, from the ones I’ve read about, not knowing anything what’s been printed, it sounds like most of them could not be prosecuted because it’s beyond the statute of limitations. It’s quite possible that, if there were this many victims that long ago, it’s quite possible that there are more recent victims as well that could emerge. So, for those cases in which prosecution isn’t an option, I hope that the media won’t just let this story die, that they’ll do some investigating. Public opinion is really the only way to bring a measure of justice here.

Given the volume of the allegations, the specificity of the accounts, the similarities among all these women’s stories, everything we know about how rape typically occurs, and, especially, the fact that these women no longer have any legal recourse, why do you think people don’t believe these assaults really happened? Are people blinded by love of Bill Cosby?

You know, I think that he’s well-loved. And it’s always hard to hear bad things about someone you admire. And he’s been such a part of American culture for decades. When I first read about allegations years ago, my first reaction was, “God, I hope it’s not true.” But the number of accusations, and the similarities in stories really create a lot of circumstantial evidence. So I’d really love to see some good investigative reporters try and dig into it more and see, if there are other victims out there, if they can shed any more light.

Often in rape cases—not just this one—you get a lot of people opting out of taking a side, claiming that it’s all “he said, she said,” and we “can never really know what happened.” But that reads as so unfair to me; we know that 97 percent of rapists go free, that many rapes go unreported, and false rape allegations are incredibly rare. How do you deal with that mentality, that what he said and what she said are equally likely to be true?

Well, I think that reporters face that dilemma every day. Most of the events we read about or see on TV, we weren’t present for. But we’re able to come to some sort of conclusion about what happened based on interviews with the people who were directly involved as well as people in their circle, people they would have told soon after the event. I think that there’s also opportunities to look at the facts in some cases. People who are alleging that something took place in a certain city on a certain date, it should be fairly easy to confirm from public sources that he was, indeed, there that day.

What convinced you of the veracity of these claims? Was there something specific that you read or learned that clinched it for you?

Without directly having knowledge of anything that happened, I was really struck by some of the first person accounts, particularly the one in the [Washington] Post last week. And the fact that they are doing this, they’re coming forward, not for, apparently, not for self-interest, but to try and alert the public, to try and sway public opinion.

Speaking of the Post, there is that George Will argument of “being a rape victim is a privileged status,” this sense that women like to announce that they’ve been raped because they relish the attention and that these women in particular must be going public for that reason, given Cosby’s fame. What do you say to that mindset?

For every victim who has come forward because they want public attention, there are tens of thousands of victims who kept it a secret because they didn’t want even their family and friends, much less the public, to know. Putting your story on full display is not a fun thing. It opens them up to all kinds of criticism online. It’s hard to see that the attention is a big motive for many victims. If anything, it works against them. We’re encouraging victims all the time to not be ashamed of what happened, to report to the police, and it’s a lot harder to convince people to come forward. It’s a rare problem that people are sort of actively looking for the attention.

Why is that narrative—“She just wants the attention”—so appealing to so many people, given that, as you say, it completely contradicts all the facts that we have about what rape victims want and need?

I think that everyone is always looking for a narrative to explain away facts that they don’t want to be true. So when it’s an allegation against someone that you’re close to, or someone that you have a lot of admiration for, it’s sort of a natural thought process for people to try and find an explanation that would exonerate them.

Bill Cosby has been asked over and over again if he has any comment on these accusations. He still has not acknowledged any wrongdoing, and it seems unlikely that he ever will. What’s the next step, then, for these women and other women like them? How can victims get closure and move on with their lives when the possibility of an apology or acknowledgment is nonexistent?

I think that’s the situation that most rape victims face. Very few ever get the satisfaction of a judgment in court of a public acknowledgement by the perpetrator. I think every survivor handles it a little bit differently, and the recovery process varies quite a bit. But I think that the idea that they, themselves, know what really happened, and that they’re supported by their friends and family are the key things in the recovery.

These allegations have surfaced and disappeared from public view on and off since the 1970s. What really brought them back to the fore was this Hannibal Buress set. Do you have any thoughts about that? Why does it take that kind of spark to bring this conversation back to life? Is it because he’s male, as Barbara Bowman wrote? Because we’re just more comfortable with humor when we’re dealing with difficult issues? Is it just that enough time has passed?

I think that there’s been a real evolution in the way the public views this crime, in recent years. And there’s much less of a willingness now to just shrug your shoulders or to sweep things under the rug. We see that with all the activism that’s going on around college sexual assault and elsewhere in society. So I think the biggest factor is that the moment is right, and people have a greater sensitivity to victims these days than they did years ago when some of these allegations first came up.

I think some people reading about these allegations are asking that question of, “Well, if this really happened, why didn’t anyone speak up back then?” But, even beyond how much we’ve shifted culturally, were the laws just not in place to help victims of rape at the time that these assaults allegedly occurred?

Depends on the specifics. There are aspects of the law that have evolved, particularly relating to marital rape. But most of the basic sexual assault laws have been on the books for decades now. I think that, my guess is that if one dug a little bit, they’d find that a lot of these people did tell people at the time: told their friends, told their parents, told their family.

What’s your take on the laws addressing sexual assault and rape? If you could just go in there with a Sharpie and change them, what would you fix?

There’s always little stuff, little ways that laws can be improved. But I think, from a big picture standpoint, our laws are generally pretty good right now. It’s the enforcement that’s the problem. Most victims still don’t report to police because, at least one of the big reasons is, they are not confident that it will lead to justice. And while there’s a lot of very skilled police investigators these days, there’s also areas of the country where people investigating these cases do not have the training they need.

It seems like these statute of limitations laws are problematic, though, because based on everything you’ve said – how these women can come forward, in part, because enough time has passed and the current climate is more understanding to victims – those laws are setting victims up to fail. As soon as you’re ready to talk about it, you’re too late.

I agree, statute of limitations laws are far more limiting than they should be. I think there’s been a lot of progress on that, in recent years. The norm, a few decades ago, was typically a five year statute of limitations. And many states have lengthened that significantly, or they’ve gotten rid of it – many states have added a DNA exception, so if you collect DNA at the time of the assault, the statute of limitations does not start running until you can match the DNA with the name of the offender.

Related to what you were saying about increased public discourse, about a month ago I started playing this game with myself: I wanted to see if I could go a full 24 hours without hearing, reading, seeing, or writing the word “rape” or “sexual assault.” And I know that I follow a bunch of people on Twitter who cover those issues with regularity, but it was actually impossible. I never made it a full day. Even this morning, I was reading a Buzzfeed article about Uber, and “sexual assault” came up halfway through the story. Is this a good thing, though? A sign that we’re finally addressing reality? Or should I just maybe relocate to a bunker with no WiFi?

I think it’s a good thing. It’s an acknowledgement of reality in a way that we weren’t so ready to acknowledge a few years ago. Rape, sexual assault, has actually gone down over the last twenty years. That’s based on the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, and the way that works is, it’s a household survey where they ask people every six months a series of questions, did X happen to you, and if the answer is yes, the follow-up is, did you report it to the police? So that gives a sense of rapes that weren’t reported. It hink the greater awareness contributes to it going down. Being aware of the risk, being more welcoming to victims, creating an environment where victims are more comfortable talking about what happened and coming forward.

The only other point I’d throw out is, people who are committing these crimes tend to be serial criminals. They tend to commit a lot, because they find early on that they can commit them with impunity, that the odds of getting caught and punished is so low.

So most rapes are committed by serial offenders. The allegations are that Cosby was a serial offender. Does that just add to your conviction that Cosby committed these rapes?

Exactly.