Who Will We Choose to See? Bill Cosby and Believing Survivors

When it comes to accusations of assault, one man will always matter more than any number of women. No number of women, no volume of women's testimony, will suffice as "proof."

When it comes to accusations of assault, one man will always matter more than any number of women. No number of women, no volume of women's testimony, will suffice as "proof." ABC News / YouTube

In early July, the Associated Press broke the news that Bill Cosby admitted, in a 2005 deposition, to procuring prescription Quaaludes “with the intent of giving them to young women he wanted to have sex with.” The AP, which had gone to court to have portions of the previously sealed deposition made public, further reported that Cosby acknowledged “giving the sedative to at least one woman and ‘other people.’” The New York Times has since obtained and published excerpts of the full transcript of the deposition, reporting that Cosby’s own words paint him as “an unapologetic, cavalier playboy, someone who used a combination of fame, apparent concern, and powerful sedatives in a calculated pursuit of young women—a profile at odds with the the popular image he so long enjoyed, that of father figure and public moralist.”

Fallout from these latest revelations has been swift and dramatic. And they share a disturbing subtext: the assumption that women, that survivors, cannot be believed. That the words of one man had a credibility the words of more than 40 women did not. That, in fact, in the absence of a man’s words, indefinite public suspicion of women as liars and gold diggers is acceptable and even rational.

When it comes to accusations of assault, one man will always matter more than any number of women. No number of women, no volume of women’s testimony, will suffice as “proof.”

With the headlines about the 2005 deposition have come reactions from the business world, public figures, and others that now seem long overdue months after controversy exploded over resurfacing allegations of serial rape and sexual assault by Cosby. Within a day of the AP’s report, Walt Disney World announced plans to remove a statue of Cosby from its Hollywood Studios theme park. On the same day, the two remaining cable channels still airing reruns of the Cosby Show pulled it from their lineups, joining TV Land, which had dropped the show last year. CAA, Cosby’s most recent talent agency, announced in the wake of the AP bombshell that it had also parted ways with the comedian in 2014. Calls emerged to rescind the Presidential Medal of Freedom Cosby received from George W. Bush in 2002, with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) expressing support for such efforts.

The View’s Whoopi Goldberg, who has been one of the loudest defenders of her friend and fellow comedian, initially dismissed coverage of Cosby’s testimony with a warning against “snap judgments” and a reminder that “In America, still—I know it’s a shock—but you are innocent until proven guilty. [Cosby] has not been proven a rapist.” But only days later, Goldberg walked back this defense, allowing, “If this is to be tried in the court of public opinion … all the information that is out there kind of points to guilt.” Goldberg’s co-host and former Cosby Show star Raven-Symoné, however, remains unconvinced; she said on The View that she needs “proof” to make a judgment, and in a later People interview added, “we will see what happens.” Singer Jill Scott, who last year dismissed the allegations against her one-time mentor as “insane,” took back her words as soon as the AP report came out. “I stood by a man I respected and loved,” she said on Twitter, but “I was wrong. It HURTS!!!”

Shortly after the New York Times reported on Cosby’s full deposition, Spelman College announced the permanent termination of the professorship endowed by Bill and Camille Cosby in 1988, and the return of what remains of the $20 million donation that created it. This decision—following the suspension of the professorship when allegations first resurfaced in November—marked the end of an over-20-year relationship between the school and the Cosby family. Producer Nonie Robinson, who had described her film Painted Down as the “last project standing behind [Cosby],” announced that Cosby had been cut from the documentary: “with Whoopi [Goldberg] and CAA pulling the plug, we must also disassociate and cut all ties with Cosby. It’s the right thing to do in light of the recent court deposition being made public.”

These responses reflect an apparent sentiment that Cosby’s 2005 statement gives serious credibility to accusations against him—by implication, a credibility lacking in the testimony of the more than 40 women (not including Jane Does) who have come forward to say Cosby assaulted them. The New York Times, for example, called the deposition “vindication” for these women, while CNN reported that “Bill Cosby’s own words … provide the strongest evidence so far for … [the] women alleging the 77-year-old comedian drugged and raped them.”

Coverage of the allegations against Cosby has generally left much to be desired. But I find myself particularly struck by recurring questions of proof and presumed innocence in commentary on this case. There is not as much daylight as it might initially appear between the seeming consensus that Cosby’s deposition provides a previously missing smoking gun and the continued insistence of a few, like Raven-Symoné, that Cosby’s guilt hasn’t been “proven.” Both imply that the testimonies of the women in question are not, on their own, evidence enough in the court of public opinion.

As many have pointed out in such cases, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a legal standard intended to protect the rights of those accused of or prosecuted for breaking the law. Yet there is always a faction who asserts “innocent until proven guilty” as a reason why alleged perpetrators should not face public censure, or even serious weighing of the accusations against them in public forums. As iconic as Bill Cosby is and was, and as uniquely heinous as the crimes he is accused of are, his case is mundane and typical in this respect. In general, when it comes to sexual violence and other forms of abuse, we are all too ready to give alleged perpetrators an extreme benefit of the doubt, while imposing an impossible standard of “proof” on those who come forward as survivors—all in the name of being impartial and fair.

Obscured by these claims of objectivity are the troubling implications for survivors of applying this standard to public opinion. Doing so requires us to accept that our central ethical and moral responsibility as a culture is to assume good faith and character on the part of alleged perpetrators until the absence of those qualities is absolutely made clear. It requires us to accept, by corollary, that our central responsibility is not to support and serve those identifying themselves as survivors, but instead to assume they are fabricators and frauds until presented with ironclad “proof” that, in the vast majority of cases, cannot and will not ever materialize. On some level we all know this—that such intimate violations by nature make absolute proof a virtually impossible standard to meet.

These are the lengths to which we are willing to go to give men the benefit of doubt. The minute possibility of innocence absolves us of responsibility to be in solidarity with survivors, much less to provide material support and services to those potentially living with the aftermath of rape.

This belies the claims to objectivity that often come with scolding reminders to stick to “innocent until proven guilty.” This standard, we’re told, is a dispassionate weighing of facts. Such folks see themselves, or at least claim to, as staying above the fray, resisting being swayed by mass media and public bandwagons, declining to choose a side until they have “more information” or “concrete evidence.”

This is a self-deception. Whatever stance one takes on Bill Cosby or any other alleged abuser, it always involves making a choice. It is more honest to flatly state disbelief in survivors—as singer Jill Scott initially did, before the revelations about Cosby’s deposition led her to backtrack—than to claim rational, nonpartisan distance. To imply that all parties are equally likely to be telling the truth is the opposite of neutrality.

Here is the reality: Refusing to believe survivors in the name of “innocent until proven guilty” could not be further from a commitment to fairness and objectivity. Belief is, in a sense, identification, a kind of recognition. To doggedly cling to the possibility of innocence is to primarily identify with the alleged perpetrator and to project oneself into their place, assuming they are falsely accused and imagining the damaging consequences of being wrongfully viewed as a rapist.

And as a culture, we are far more willing to do the emotional work of identification—to engage our imaginations and empathy—on behalf of those accused of sexual violence than those who have survived it. It is far easier for us to worry over the possibility, no matter how remote, of “destroying” the life of an innocent person, than to do the more uncomfortable work of putting ourselves in the much more likely scenario: living with the devastation caused by sexual violence, and the suspicion and contempt with which survivors are viewed.

Why do we consistently choose to identify with accused perpetrators over victims? Perhaps part of the reason is understandable terror at the thought that we too could suffer—for some, suffer again—such violation. Giving the accused the benefit of the doubt, though it means withholding that same benefit from survivors, perhaps affords us the comforting illusion of safety.

But it is not only that identifying with survivors is uncomfortable and frightening. It is also that institutionalized power and systemic oppression work by insisting on the fundamental innocence and trustworthiness of power—whether that’s whiteness, patriarchy, wealth, or something else. They work by casting the marginalized in the role of perpetual suspects who always have to prove their experiences and oppression are real. We are systematically taught that only power deserves the automatic benefit of the doubt.

We are always faced with a choice: Who will receive the bulk of our sympathies? Who is afforded the luxury of being seen as a fleshed-out individual, of being allowed to be flawed and yet still human, still relatable? Who will we do the emotional labor of identifying with?

Our cultural scripts are clear: We are to do the work of presuming innocence for accused perpetrators, not victims. Perhaps more terrifying, our investment in disbelieving victims for the sake of maintaining the possibility of that innocence is so complete that we don’t even process it for the emotional labor it is.

“Innocent until proven guilty,” in rape culture, feels like fairness. It feels like objective weighing of evidence. It feels like rationality. It feels obvious. That it requires us to assume that survivors are lying—if not outright con artists—escapes our notice. Until we wake up to the reality that we are taught to consistently see ourselves in and side with perpetrators over victims, with men over women, the word of one man will continue to be worth more than the voices of any number of women.