So what does this mean? Since the alleged rapes largely happened so long ago that the statute of limitations has passed, the only real relevance of these new details is in the court of public opinion. Even though more than 30 women have accused Cosby, a huge number of Americans have either defended Cosby or remained skeptical about his guilt. Will this new revelation, which basically amounts to a confession, change their minds?
My initial instinct was not to be too hopeful. The blunt fact of the matter is that people treat sexual abuse differently than other crimes. Because the crime reveals icky things about our society and our continuing problem of gendered violence, a lot of people simply refuse to see it for what it is, either going into deep denial or holding accusations of rape to a much higher standard of evidence than they would any other crime. The Cosby situation is a classic example of this. Public Policy Polling found, back in January, that despite the testimony of dozens of women, 41 percent of Americans remained unsure about Cosby’s guilt. Another 20 percent outright preferred to believe all those women were lying rather than admit that he probably did it. A minority of Americans—39 percent—were able to look at all these testimonials and accept the likely truth that he did it.
This deep unwillingness to listen to women and tendency to take a man’s word over a woman’s even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a chronic problem when it comes to sexual violence, even when we’re not talking about famous men like Bill Cosby. As RAINN analysis shows, there’s a felony conviction in only 5 percent of rape cases. That is well beyond “innocent until proven guilty” and shows that eyewitness testimony is simply disregarded in rape cases to an extent that isn’t true in all other crimes. Fixing this situation requires everyone—not just cops and judges, but ordinary Americans who might sit a jury one day—to rethink our attitudes towards rape accusations.
Obviously, we don’t want to railroad people without evidence. But we should also learn to check that tendency to just immediately assume rape accusers are lying, a tendency that’s so out of control that many people believe or at least entertain the possibility that 30 women could somehow be conspiring to lie together for reasons unknown.
But while I am very cynical about many people’s ability to actually pay attention to the evidence and draw conclusions that they may not want to believe, I must confess that, looking over the evidence, there’s reason to believe that this new revelation might actually have a positive effect on people. While there’s a smattering of Cosby defenders on Twitter, for instance, the vast majority of people talking about this are condemning the man. Either the Cosby defenders of the past are changing their minds or they are too embarrassed right now to speak up, but either way, it shows that the evidence is becoming too overwhelming.
We’ve also had a very public recanting. Jill Scott, who previously disappointed feminist fans by defending Cosby, admitted she was wrong on Twitter. Well, sort of. She did say she didn’t regret her previous stance, saying that prior to the release of information, the only thing Cosby detractors had was “social media or hearsay.” In fact, there was much more than that: More than 30 eyewitness testimonies and one case settled out of court, neither of which counts as hearsay, much less innuendo. But at least she’s not digging her heels in. Admitting you’re wrong is never easy, so kudos to Scott for getting out there and doing the right thing. Hopefully, it will be the first of many.
Right now, it’s too early to say if these revelations will have a lasting impact, either when it comes to the Cosby case or on people’s attitudes about the veracity of victim testimony of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, time has a way of eroding many people’s understanding of these cases, causing public opinion to drift back to the side of the alleged abuser. Consider the Woody Allen case, and how the years have washed away the memory of how much evidence there was against him, leaving many people to assume that it’s nothing but a hysterical Mia Farrow making stuff up to get back at her ex. Something similar could sadly happen in this case.
But hopefully not. As cynical as I can be about these things, it’s also undeniable that decades of feminist work on these issues has raised awareness and has made it easier for victims to come forward with some assurance of being believed. This case has already seen one sign of progress. Even people who are skeptical about the allegations admit that if he did do it, that was indeed rape. A couple of decades ago that might not have been the case. Certainly there’s enough cultural evidence to suggest that even as late as the ‘80s, a lot of people didn’t really consider it rape to attack women in this way. Fast forward to recent years, when the national attitudes after the Steubenville rape case showed that people had really come around to the idea that attacking a drunk or passed out woman is criminal, not just boys being boys.
Changing American attitudes about rape and sexual abuse is going to be a long, hard process. Every major incident like this, as troubling as it is, can help move us further along the path. Maybe next time, we’ll see a little more willingness to listen to victims when they’re telling us their stories.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She's a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.