Last summer, I outlined how the Bill Cosby case reaffirmed the existence of rape culture. When Andrea Constand first reported her assault by Bill Cosby, a comedian affectionately nicknamed “America’s Dad,” public response was negligible and lawyers were reluctant to prosecute him. The original 2006 lawsuit ended with a $3.38 million settlement, placing a monetary value on Constand’s suffering. In 2014, interest in the case, reinvigorated by an entertainer referencing it in their act, and led by subsequently emboldened women, produced the 2017 criminal case that ended as a frustrating mistrial after six days of deliberation. The jury in last week’s retrial, conversely, only needed 14 hours over two days to find Cosby guilty.
The lengthy situation reveals disheartening facets of American society, such as our excusatory attitudes towards unforgivable acts by people with status. But on a brighter side, it also demonstrates the power of social movements and social media, and it is an easy case to follow to trace important cultural shifts.
What’s going on?
When the 2017 jury proclaimed itself “hopelessly deadlocked” and failed to convict Cosby, it was disappointing - even devastating - but not surprising. Rape culture endures when a society’s attitudes, norms and media condone, excuse or encourage behaviors that lead to sexual misconduct, and there is no denying that American culture is saturated in sexual violence and toxic masculinity.
A few months after the mistrial, #MeToo began trickling into Twitter feeds. Tamara Burke started the hashtag in response to the video of Donald Trump boasting about grabbing women by the pussy and to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and she encouraged other survivors of sexual assault to repost it and light up their friends’ feeds with undeniable and quantitative proof of just how many women have been subjected to degrading and dehumanizing behavior. Then, with the speed and chaos only Twitter can inspire, #MeToo flooded the internet.
The Washington Post found that #MeToo’s virality far outshined that of previous online conversations surrounding the topic since 2010, reaching a popularity akin to major movements like #BlackLivesMatter. Over 1.7 million users tweeted #MeToo between Oct. and Nov. 2017, and the hashtag was included in 12 million Facebook posts in its first 24 hours of its virality. Nearly 45 percent of Facebook users had a friend who posted the phrase. Celebrities championed the hashtag and the movements it spurred online, on-screen and on stage at events like the Time’s Up-focused Golden Globes. Inundated with personal stories, we could no longer deny the scope of the issue.
Of course, there are risks associated with so-called “hashtag activism” - if we call it activism, do we discount the efforts of protesters and community leaders? are we overestimating the impact of social media? - and we can’t pretend that retweeting a name or phrase cures a cultural epidemic. We also can’t attribute changes in our collective perceptions of sexual assault to #MeToo; a 2-word phrase is not the sole instigator of a broader cultural shift. But we can recognize when that phrase becomes a symbol for change, and we can acknowledge when a movement and the ensuing conversations truly catalyze change in our society. Last time, the Cosby case proved that rape culture existed unnoticed, unthreatened and uncurtailed. Now, it proves that our outspoken resistance to rape culture is helping to produce the results we need and deserve.
Why should we pay attention?
To the case...
The jury found Cosby guilty last week of three charges of sexual assault for drugging and violating Andrea Constand in his home in 2004. The manager of the Temple University women’s basketball team, Constand had befriended Cosby and viewed him as a mentor while he served as a trustee of the school.
Constand reported the incident to police in 2005, but police would not charge Cosby at the time. She filed her own civil lawsuit in 2006, backed by 13 other accusations of sexual assault from women willing to testify, but the judge allowed only Constand a chance to speak due to the statute of limitations. During the trial, Cosby admitted to having sexual interest in Constand, saving prescription quaaludes (sedatives) to give to women he wanted to have sex with - “the same as a person would say, ‘have a drink’” - and paying off ex-lovers to stay silent about his encounters with them. He eventually paid Constand a settlement of $3.38 million.
At the time, the public largely ignored Constand’s case; nationally, we focused on other things, like the death of the most-wanted Iraqi insurgent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Israel-Hezbollah war, North Korea’s nuclear test, the verdict on Saddam Hussein and Bush’s fence.
Cosby’s transgressions were dragged back into the spotlight in 2014 by, of all people, a fellow comedian named Hannibal Buress. The Independent describes the stand-up bit that caught America’s attention:
“Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s,” Buress, a black man, said during the bit, referring to Cosby’s time as the lead actor in The Cosby Show, and to Cosby’s regular habit of telling black youth in America that the reason they lacked opportunity is because they were not behaving appropriately.
“Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby,” the joke continued, referring to several accusations against Cosby that had previously been aired but largely ignored publicly. “So turn the crazy down a couple notches.”
Buress then turned to the members of the audience who may not have believed him. Check it out for yourselves, he told them.
“Google ‘Bill Cosby rape,’” he said. “That … has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’
Although questionable, the “joke” sparked Americans’ memory of the issue. People researched, questioned, speculated and wanted answers. Empowered by the public response, more than 50 women spoke out against him with similar stories of his using celebrity status to take advantage of them.
Constand’s 2017 criminal case ensued, followed by the successful 2018 retrial. Cosby, 80, now faces ten years for each of his three charges, though he is likely to serve all three sentences at once (if he ends up behind bars at all - but that’s another story).
The conviction has since been called a triumph of #MeToo and a victory for anti-sexual assault activists. And it certainly is something to celebrate - out of every 1000 instances of rape, only 13 cases get referred to a prosecutor, and only 7 cases will lead to a felony conviction. It’s even more bleak when the accused is a popular celebrity.
If you’ve been paying attention, it’s clear that in the 12 years between 2006 and 2018, the online landscape and political climate changed dramatically. Social media buzzed about it in a way not possible back in 2006, and Cosby’s victims were able to speak out and gain support on these public platforms. #MeToo had taken over the internet, and society is now erupting with the reawakening of social movements protecting various injustices.
...and to the hashtag.
#MeToo, while a powerful symbol of unity and visibility for survivors, is not the only reason our society has challenged rape culture so fearlessly recently. There are other factors to consider that may have influenced the outcome of the retrial -- still positive indicators of a changing culture, sure, but let’s make sure they’re properly attributed.
Firstly, we can’t underestimate the value of celebrities’ use of their platforms to shine light on this issue. Pop culture icons have been speaking out against accusers, standing up in support of victims and even dressing in black to politicize an awards show that reached over 19 million viewers. People look to celebs and media to tell them what’s cool, what’s in and, increasingly, what’s important socially and politically. Recently, our icons told us that sexual assault is a traumatic and abundant experience occurring anywhere from comedians’ homes and Hollywood to schools and clubs. It’s becoming less taboo, and many of us have been adjusting our reactions to survivors’ stories accordingly.
Now let’s look at the retrial specifically. This time, five other women aside from Constand were allowed to testify as "prior bad acts" witnesses. Members of the jury were likely influenced by a changing culture, collective negative attitudes towards Cosby in social media, knowledge that over 50 women came forward with similar stories and, finally, compelling personal stories as additional evidence to consider as they deliberated.
We have started to deconstruct the systems that allow for oppression, objectification and misogyny, and while #MeToo visualizes the statistics and humanizes the survivors, the hashtag is not the only thing that swayed this jury.
What can you do about it?
This time, the topic of this column is something positive. It’s a mark of progress, of a culture shifting towards equality, respect and the destabilization of the comfortable status quo that supports rampant sexual violence. The foundations of rape culture are starting to crumble.
However, we can’t fool ourselves here: the fight isn’t over, and our problems aren’t solved because Bill Cosby has been brought to justice - actually, the aftermath is arguably the most important part of the movement. We have seen some successes (bonus: it’s a high-profile case and person), but times of perceived resolution are when complacency most easily begins to creep up once more.
Pay attention, believe survivors and continue fighting. Then we’ll keep heading in the right direction.
Emily Rose is an 18-year-old Journalism major at Mercer University, where she also plans to minor in Women's & Gender Studies and possibly Graphic Design. Aside from her work with Step Up, she is the Lead Writer of the News section of the Mercer Cluster, a media intern with Girls Rock Athens and the Campus Relations Chair of her sorority. She spends most of her time writing, editing, organizing, and changing her mind. You can read her other work on her website.