How many women does it take to equal the weight of one man? To date, two dozen women have publically accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault with the allegations spanning a 40-year period. These rumors have surfaced previously on a number of occasions, but not until male comic Hannibal Buress mentioned them in his act did this pick up steam in the mainstream press. In yet another chapter of the Cosby saga, longtime costar Phylicia Rashad has forcefully jumped to his defense. The truth rests with Mr. Cosby and his accusers. The responsibility also rests with him, not his defenders. Yet unpacking Rashad’s defense is important in understanding how women are viewed as lesser beings when confronting powerful men.
As reported in The Atlantic:
[Rashad is] talking about the more than 20 people who’ve said that Cosby sexually assaulted them, in many cases after allegedly drugging them. “Forget these women,” Rashad told Showbiz411 writer Roger Friedman at a Selma luncheon. “What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated. I don’t know why or who’s doing it, but it’s the legacy. And it’s a legacy that is so important to the culture.”
Rashad’s “Forget these women” sound bite has already come back to haunt her in a media firestorm. Ms. Rashad says she was misquoted – that what she said was, “this is not about the women, this is about the obliteration of a legacy.” I’m not sure that makes it much better, however. What happened to “the women” counts first above all. Otherwise we are sending the same message that Roman Polanski’s defenders sent about his rape of a 13 year old girl – that “creative genius” defies punishment or accountability.
Phyllis Rashad’s defense came across as defiant and yes, dismissive of these women, but may not be surprising when viewed through the lens of loyalty to a mentor and friend who helped put her career on the map. Certainly, no one would want to believe something so horrible about a colleague. It would then color every single statement, demonstration of affection or every remark that person ever made. Who wants their entire worldview or memory of a trusted friend to come crashing down?
If Ms. Rashad worked with a man who treated her with regard, and assuming she never saw any other side to his behavior, her remarks are not inconceivable. Yet her defense doesn’t carry weight in a search for the truth, since it’s possible that a powerful person whose career depends upon maintaining a certain image before the public may have a shadow side well hidden from view. Also, men who abuse typically choose women who are of lower social status and visibility, since it is easier to discredit or intimidate them.
No one should be tried in the court of public opinion, yet frustration with Ms. Rashad is understandable. Anyone who has ever been the victim of sexual abuse must be thinking, ‘how many of me does it take to stop one of him?’ Is it possible that some of Mr. Cosby’s accusers are fabricating their stories. Perhaps. Is it likely that more than 24 different women who do not know each other, live in different parts of the country, and over many years have come forward with a similar story, reporting similar behavior, have all made this up? That seems less plausible.
Women who accuse powerful men of wrongdoing typically don’t fare well. Why would anyone sign on for such abuse?
The myth of the false rape accusation is just that. The reality is that few false reports are made. According to statistics compiled by RAINN from the FBI and Department of Justice, approximately 2/3 of rapes were committed by someone known to the victim. 38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance. Only 32 out of every 100 rapes ever get reported to the police. Of that number, 7 lead to an arrest and only 2 lead to a felony conviction. Meaning that 98% of the culprits will never spend a day in jail. This bespeaks a culture of victim blaming.
Ms. Rashad has the right to defend her friend, but she doesn’t have any more definitive proof than I do of the veracity or falsehood of the accusations against him. In her TV appearance Tuesday, she seemed to backtrack a bit by saying ‘she knows nothing of this and doesn’t want to.’ Yet if these accusations do hold up – we cannot and should not look away. Too many women refrain from reporting sexual assault because of threats, fear of recrimination, character assassination and of not being believed. And too many times, blanket defense of a powerful perpetrator makes it that much more intimidating for any others to come forward.
As Washington Post’s Aly Neel pointed out, we have a long history of forgiving powerful men all kinds of violent transgressions. Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown and the aforementioned Roman Polanski are prominent among famous men who got a pass for abusing women and experiencing no harm to their careers
We must avoid blaming women who accuse, or even women who defend, and put the spotlight back on Mr. Cosby to speak for himself.
Anita Finlay is the bestselling author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin — exposing media bias in a society not as evolved as advertised. #1 on Amazon’s Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.
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