After years of troubling allegations of serial rape, the recent takedown of Bill Cosby as a public figure may mark a radical shift in how we address our rape culture. And though the spiraling effect of these claims has produced an unprecedented backlash against him, a chasm remains between this promising moment of activism—powered especially by young, social media-savvy women of color—and a justice system that continues to silence, blame and shame rape victims.
In terms of physical evidence related to claims made against Cosby, not much has changed. Though 13 women initially came forward in 2005 to corroborate Cosby’s alleged pattern of sexual assault when Andrea Constand accused him, former Pennsylvania prosecutor Bruce Castor declined to charge Cosby because, as he told CNN last week, “Back then, the desire on our part to move was pretty strong. The problem with the case was she waited a year until she told the police about it.
“I had a theory that Cosby had drugged the woman using something to make her sleepy and to make her defenseless or unable to recall what happened, but because of the delay,” Castor went on, “I couldn’t check her blood.”
But beyond the Cosby case, the problem of lack of physical evidence in rape cases has reached systematic proportions. This past summer, for example, the New York Times editorial board revealed that well over 100,000 rape kits holding the saliva, semen, blood, hair and other DNA evidence from victims after an attack “often sit unopened for years in police evidence rooms or public crime labs.” The editorial board opined, “The failure of police departments around the country to test and analyze evidence connected to sexual assaults shows contempt for victims, public safety and justice.”
As a result of these institutional breakdowns, activists are increasingly inventing new tools to accelerate action outside the law, and social media has now emerged, for better and not nearly enough, as our alternative to the “rape kit.”
With hashtags like #BeenRapedNeverReported, #RapeCultureIsWhen and even this summer’s #JusticeForJada (in solidarity with 16-year-old sexual assault victim Jada), social media has become the place where evidence is shared, rape victims’ testimonies gathered, and the first round of humiliation and punishment of the perpetrators meted out.
“Using Twitter and Facebook as our 21st-century rape kits [is] not merely [a reflection] of how hard it is to prosecute rape crimes but a logical alternative to a criminal-justice system that rarely provides rape victims with a sense of fairness or protection,” said Scheherazade Tillet, executive director of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to educate, empower and inspire young people to end violence against girls and women (she is also my sister).
But as we reflect on the furor and frenzy over Cosby’s life and legacy that these accusations have brought forward, let’s not lose sight of the goal. Over the last few years, activists and survivors have valued social media (alongside more traditional forms of organizing) to create awareness and shift victim-blaming narratives of rape. From Steubenville to SlutWalks, from campus-rape reform to female soldiers testifying before Congress about military sexual assault, the momentum is gaining.
And yet, in the Cosby case, even if social media and the testimonies of these alleged victims have created the climate in which accountability looks possible—it is not justice itself.
Justice and science failed in the shadow of Cosby’s power, even after decades of the accusations being an open secret. This year, however, it only took nine months for the story to explode online. In February, both Gawker’s Tom Scocca and Slate’s Amanda Hess wrote about the accusations in response to the New York Times’ dueling op-eds from Woody Allen and his daughter Dylan Farrow about his alleged sexual abuse of her.
By October, Hannibal Buress’ routine about Cosby as a rapist went viral, and then, this month, Barbara Bowman published accusations against him in the Washington Post. A tweet from Cosby’s Twitter account was greeted by memes about the rape allegations, and so far, at least 15 women (and counting) women have now come forward.
As a result, some have called Cosby’s fall “sudden”; others have declared him “dead.” Even his biographer, Mark Whitaker, who recently told the Daily Beast that he omitted any details of these accusations in his book under the premise of journalistic integrity, didn’t see it coming: “Well, look, obviously the story has changed, and I’m going to have to address that in future editions of the book, if not sooner.”
Now, many have believed that Cosby is finally being held accountable for his actions. Whitaker believes that Cosby has “paid a big price. … The show [a planned NBC sitcom] has been yanked. The reruns of The Cosby Show have been taken off the air. He’s routinely called a rapist everywhere. That’s a big price.”
While the expected financial loss that Cosby will experience because Netflix has postponed his stand-up, NBC declined his show and TV Land dropped The Cosby Show does indicate a new public response to these accusations, this seems hardly enough for a person who has been accused of systematically drugging, raping and destroying the lives of women since 1969, the year of the first accusation against him.
In our quick-fire responses to take down or defend Cosby, I fear that we might forget what it means to be raped. To have one’s life forever ripped open, trusting virtually no one (including oneself) and spending one’s life in a constant state of recovery—overcoming violence that you did not choose or, in the cases of many of these women, might have been drugged into experiencing.
“Every time I hear his name mentioned and see him getting an honorary doctorate and see him as this father figure, it makes me nauseated,” Cosby accuser Victoria Valentino told the Washington Post. “It’s so humiliating. Forty-four years later, it makes me feel shameful.”
Lots of women came forward in 2005, and even more now. Some of them might have healed, and others might not. From the outpouring, we see these women finding strength in numbers and in strangers finally believing them.
And for that, I turn to them to define what justice can mean for themselves and for us: It could be calling for change in the statutes of limitation on rape cases (since pursuing prosecution is no longer possible in most of the cases) or a public apology from Cosby. For others, it might mean material restitution. But most important, it is an opportunity for us a nation to listen to these women, follow their lead and finally demand more from Cosby—and begin to address how we deal with our rape culture.
Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.