“Only after a man” called Bill Cosby a rapist did anyone listen: on rape, history, and epistemology

Barbara Bowman says that Bill Cosby raped her in the 1980s, when she was seventeen years old. When she told people about the assaults at the time, she was told that she was crazy, or a liar:

Back then, the incident was so horrifying that I had trouble admitting it to myself, let alone to others. But I first told my agent, who did nothing. (Cosby sometimes came to her office to interview people for “The Cosby Show” and other acting jobs.) A girlfriend took me to a lawyer, but he accused me of making the story up. Their dismissive responses crushed any hope I had of getting help; I was convinced no one would listen to me. That feeling of futility is what ultimately kept me from going to the police. . . .

I didn’t stay entirely quiet, though: I’ve been telling my story publicly for nearly 10 years. When Constand brought her lawsuit, I found renewed confidence. I was determined to not be silent any more. In 2006, I was interviewed by Robert Huber for Philadelphia Magazine, and Alycia Lane for KYW-TV news in Philadelphia. A reporter wrote about my experience in the December 2006 issue of People Magazine. And last February, Katie Baker interviewed me for Newsweek. Bloggers and columnists wrote about that story for several months after it was published. Still, my complaint didn’t seem to take hold.

Only after a man, Hannibal Buress, called Bill Cosby a rapist in a comedy act last month did the public outcry begin in earnest. The original video of Buress’s performance went viral. This week, Twitter turned against him, too, with a meme that emblazoned rape scenarios across pictures of his face.

While I am grateful for the new attention to Cosby’s crimes, I must ask my own questions: Why wasn’t I believed? Why didn’t I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it? Why was I, a victim of sexual assault, further wronged by victim blaming when I came forward? The women victimized by Bill Cosby have been talking about his crimes for more than a decade. Why didn’t our stories go viral?

Unfortunately, our experience isn’t unique. The entertainment world is rife with famous men who use their power to victimize and then silence young women who look up to them. Even when their victims speak out, the industry and the public turn blind eyes; these men’s celebrity, careers, and public adulation continue to thrive.

So little changes in the history of sexual assault that it’s almost like it’s impervious to change over time, and it’s not just in the entertainment industry of course.  Powerful men exploit their access to young, powerless women, girls, and boys.  On the rare occasion that a young, powerless person speaks up, she’s told that she’s crazy, she misunderstood, she’s to blame, and omigod do you know what this might do to his career? 

Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, recounts a story about a predatory (and wildly popular!) elementary school teacher who makes a suggestive comment to her.  Her mother takes her seriously and yanks her out of that school, but when Dunham tells her story to an acquaintance with children in another school where the predatory teacher now works, he reacts angrily and lectures her that she’d better be careful about making such potentially explosive accusations.

That’s what matters, doesn’t it?  Our fantasy about the way we hope the world works, in which popular, avuncular father figures, or teachers, or priests, or coaches, never, ever exploit the youth and vulnerability of their charges–that fantasy is so much more important to us than dealing with grim reality, in which the vulnerable are regularly exploited by the powerful.

Barbara Bowman’s article makes a powerful point about epistemology and history as much as rape and power.  It demonstrates that sometimes, we just refuse to see a story although the evidence for it is right before our eyes.  She explains how individuals and entire societies can conspire to ignore some people’s experiences in favor of hearing and writing about others, especially if the voices we want to ignore are women’s voices.

I keep thinking about Cornelia Hughes Dayton’s brilliant analysis of eighteenth-century Connecticut courtrooms in Women Before the Bar, and the ways in which they decided not to hear or take seriously anything that women had to say about their own lives and experiences.  She’s got a terrific chapter in that book that describes this discounting of women’s words very specifically–but I’m away from my library (and because I can’t find a table of contents on either Amazon or Google books!) so I can’t be any more specific today than this.  (Maybe one of you readers can help us out in the comments?)

We historians need to consider this as we move into the digital age, as more and more people have access to digital media for telling their stories.  All along, women’s historians of the relatively distant past like me have been saying that we don’t have a problem with finding primary sources–we have a problem with whether or not people want to hear the stories these sources are telling us.  In theory, we are now surrounded by women telling their stories online, on social media, and even in interviews with traditional old media that are published on paper in newspapers and magazines.  Are we listening?

Bowman’s story suggests that even in the modern era after multiple interviews and invitations to tell her story in court that it’s not enough for a woman to tell her own story.  As she says, it took a man’s endorsement for people to take her seriously, 30 years later.

23 thoughts on ““Only after a man” called Bill Cosby a rapist did anyone listen: on rape, history, and epistemology

  1. I don’t know if you are following the Jian Ghomeshi scandal here in Canada. He was fired from the CBC at the end of October after decades of rumors of sexual violence towards women. Concurrently he hosted one of the most popular radio interview shows in Canada (and distributed around the world).

    Women are slowing coming forward with accusations. It’s shocking and not surprising how they have been initially vilified and then believed, despite, as I noted above, decades of rumors within the industry of his inappropriate behavior.

    Money, gender, etc. all conspired to keep his secret and keep him unaccountable for his actions. It is unfolding day by day and we are all watching closely.

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  2. While I agree completely with your analysis of people in a position of power sexually assaulting women, girls and boys. You really only present your argument as men taking advantage of women. I would point out that there are countless cases of women teachers having a “relationship” with a young “male student”. How come we don’t call that for what it is a raping of a boy. We are much more considerate of a woman when she is the one who is raping a victim. Sexism comes in many shapes and sizes we need to protect victims and demonize the aggressor even if it doesn’t fit into our feminist agenda.

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  3. Sandra, I have been following the Ghomeshi story, and you’re right–it has most of the same elements of the Cosby story, the Jimmy Saville abuse, etc. So far, though, Ghomeshi appears only to have assaulted adult women, whereas Cosby and Saville apparently targeted very young victims. The fact that all of Ghomeshi’s victims were adults raises other issues–they wonder, did they invite this behavior? Are they complicit? Most of the narratives of Ghomeshi’s victims that I’ve read talk about wondering for months or years as to their complicity until they heard about other women’s complaints.

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  4. There’s a case proceeding in New Orleans right now (http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2014/11/nopd_sex_crimes_problems.html) in which five detectives are accused of circular filing hundreds of rape and abuse cases- they filed no paperwork and just ignored the evidence, including DNA. One of the detectives said she (!!!) felt that simple rape shouldn’t be a crime at all. These appear to all be cases of women coming forward with allegations about themselves or their children.

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  5. Historiann, there were young victims as well. Carlton University and others sent interns to the CBC and apparently a prof at Carlton steered women away from interning at Q (Ghomeshi’s program) because of the rumors. In general he was known for pursuing women in their early twenties (he is in his late 40’s now).

    So technically they were adults but there’s a power imbalance with the celebrity and also the position within the industry. Media is a small, tight knit industry in Canada with few opportunities. Ghomeshi had a lot of influence and power. It’s a challenge to tease out complicity when there is that power imbalance.

    We don’t know all the details yet – I do know that here in Canada you can’t consent to violence/assault. In addition, from the stories so far it sounds like they agreed to “x” and then “y” happened.

    It’s also devastating for Canadians because it was the CBC. It’s difficult to find an analogy for Americans. (A nickname for the CBC is the Mother Corp.). CBC is intertwined with our national identity – it’s part of our heritage. And to have something like this happen within the CBC? Heartbreaking.

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  6. Sandra, thanks for that further intel. I didn’t know Ghomeshi’s victims were pretty young, too. Eeeewww. (And not all of Cosby’s victims were teenagers.)

    I think most Americans get the place of the CBC in Canadian culture, if they think about it for a minute. The Ghomeshi story is very much like the revelations about Jimmy Saville were for the BBC and Britain generally, I think, but with a Canadian twist in that Ghomeshi is very much the kind of Canadian that Anglo-Canadians like to celebrate (i.e. from an immigrant family and highly successful in the kind of Canadian culture the CBC likes to represent.)

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  7. The Buress case of virality points out just how much “importance risk” matters.

    The women and girls, of course, were risking their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor just by telling the truth. However, in our culture, what matters is access to power, which those gals are assumed not to have had in the first place (at least, until women established in the industry start telling the truth about their assaults by Cosby).

    Buress could have stayed part of the black entertainment sector that overlooks male indiscretions (i.e., why does Chris Brown still have a career singing about women?). However, with Cosby damn-near taunting younger black comedians by posturing morally to the black community, he at last gave Buress and the zeitgeist an opening to call out his hypocrisy. Would he ever had been called out, if he just retired, or did his gigs without telling young Negroes to pull their pants up?

    There were a lot of problems behind valuing Cosby through his corporate utility (by casinos, as well as by transnational pudding companies), rather than his actions, but I bet you his crisis managers will keep him on track, and pretend the accusations are just noise. As with the gentleman on Seventh Heaven, we can assume his crimes are outside the statute of limitations — unless we gear up as a nation to consider paying off victims to be in itself a crime.

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  8. I remember reading those reports in 2006 and thinking, “Well, his career is over.” Next thing you know, it’s as if nothing had been reported and nothing had happened.

    This post points to the very serious consequences of something we’ve all talked about: a woman says something in a meeting, is ignored, and her point is raised by a man 5 minutes later to much acclaim and attention.

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  9. … and, Rustonite, the NOLA scandal (there’s a phrase that’s deathless…) is so disgusting that I doubt even L&O SVU will take it on fictionally — there are some myths TPTB need to keep going so badly — such as, scandalous police departments can be reformed — because there is no happy ending in sight.

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  10. cgeye–you’re right. The generational conflict among Cosby and younger African American comedians is a terrifically important angle. I still need to dial up the Buress rant & check it out.

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  11. It feels like this form of ignoring women must be directly related to the Great Forgetting. Don’t believe women, don’t remember women, and before you know it — poof — you’ve disappeared them. Which, I guess, means that much more space and credit and bennies to the dicks who remain. Until those pesky females forget their place and refuse to shut up.

    I wonder what it’s like to live inside a mind like that.

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  12. Can we say “patriarchal equilibrium”?

    On a different plane, (but still in this solar system) there is the Matt Taylor shirt episode. As far as I can tell, most of the Internet discussion is about how awful those feminists are for making a grown man cry, when he’d just landed a probe on a comet (which is, indeed, very cool). Hadley Freeman (http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2014/nov/17/comet-scientist-matt-taylor-shirt-awful-what-should-wear-instead-rosetta) writing in The Guardian, says the real scandal is how few women were in the control room. Well, yes, of course that’s the scandal. But maybe the fact that the lead scientist thinks it’s ok to wear sexist shirts to work would help explain that? Somewhere, long ago, someone decided that being a brilliant scientist was so cool that you did not need to dress like an adult. And women had to grow up and suck it up.

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  13. Well, you know, Susan: feminists have no senses of humor!

    Geek culture can be aggressively misogynist, as that shirt choice demonstrates. I saw that whole fracas last week and was just embarrassed for the putative adult who thought that wearing naked ladies all over his shirt was an appropriate way to roll when in the international spotlight. Talk about an infantilized, puerile culture. When major scientists think that’s just “being fun,” why is anyone surprised by gamergate?

    I will say this for men working in the humanities: most of them, like most of the rest of us, think about power a LOT, so I’m pretty sure that few if any of them would wear something like that to a professional meeting or event. (Or is it just that humanities scholars are never in the international spotlight? Hard to say!)

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  14. Susan is right about the broader context of that appalling shirt and the “but he’s really a sweet guy” who chose to wear it for all the world to see. I’m not embarrassed for him at all. I work every day with really lovely people who are completely ignorant of their privilege and unaware of who is not in the room with them. I also work every day with completely aware and untroubled sexists. Both groups, btw, do a great job of keeping the ladies who would speak out in line.

    My partner and I were watching that broadcast live in our living room with our kids. To their credit, both 10 year old boys recognised immediately why their mother had said what she just said when the shirt appeared. They are more aware than entire control room of scientists and tee vee producers, apparently. Of course, they engage in more meaningful dialog about these issues than those folks probably do.

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  15. H’Ann, you’re right: while (as I think you’ve noted in the past) there are men in the humanities who do not think it’s necessary to wear professional clothing to work. The shorts and tee-shirt look is certainly this side of casual, but I’ve never seen it accompanied by a sexist tee shirt.

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  16. Just wanted to note that, unfortunately, CBC has been following the downward trend of America media with respect to women’s rights for some time now.

    For example, their news webpage routinely shortens the term “sexual assault” to “sex assault”. The page also uses the term “accuser” instead of “victim”. Both terms are right there in today’s headline about Bill Cosby:

    “Canada’s laws could serve Bill Cosby sex assault accusers”

    CBC news once was so much better than U.S. media in reporting on women’s rights in Canada, in the U.S. and in the world. But after every budget cut, their policy seemed to move further towards “sexism sells”. After the failed strike in 2005, the agency seems to have decided that AP-style biased reporting on news regarding women and women’s rights was good enough.

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  17. Ghomeshi was just arrested and charged with 5 counts (4 counts of sexual assault and one of choking). He’ll be in court this afternoon.

    Let’s just hope that it’s only the beginning of some consequences for him and others like him.

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  18. I heard!!! (My Canadian Mother-in-Law is visiting and reading the McLean’s/Globe and Mail on her i-pad). And on the California NPR station I listen to here, it was even announced on-air. (I don’t know if or when the national NPR shows will pick this up–I’m assuming that with Bill Cosby and UVA in the news, there might be a hook enough to get in on national programs.)

    I will be very interested to watch how the prosecution of these crimes unfolds.

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