These Women Need Us to Remember What Bill Cosby Did to Them

For over four decades, America’s favorite TV dad allegedly assaulted at least 46 women. This week, 35 of them summoned the courage to reveal themselves in 'New York.' Believe it.
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Say, who wants to remember when Tom Scocca wrote a piece called “Who Wants to Remember Bill Cosby’s Multiple Sex-Assault Accusations?” and was accused—even in this very publication—of “dredging up” Cosby’s past to take the heat off of Woody Allen? As though it was inconceivable that one could make a straightforward connection between two cases in which girls and women reported that a powerful, beloved celebrity had violated their bodies—and we all pretty much agreed to move on like we never heard about it?

For that matter, who wants to remember that around the same time—February 2014—an adult Dylan Farrow confirmed, in her own words, that she recalled her father molesting her? That those allegations we all heard about when she was a young girl, then promptly forgot about, were true? (Who wants to remember that Woody Allen was permitted to adopt two girl children—sisters to Dylan and daughters to his wife, Dylan’s sister—after that? ) Since Farrow’s reassertion that her father committed an unspeakable crime, Allen has made at least one more movie and signed a deal with Amazon to create a TV series. For weeks, his name has been on a marquee a few blocks from my home, because he’s also on tour with his jazz band this summer. Sure, why not? Eighteen months later, it’s all back down the memory hole, as far as the viewing and listening public are concerned. 

People who haven’t forgotten, not any of it, are rightfully excited about this week’s New York Magazine cover, featuring portraits of 35 women who told reporter Noreen Malone their stories of being sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby—and one empty chair, to represent all those who have not chosen to make their names and faces public. (At this writing, there are 46 women who have publicly reported that Cosby assaulted them.) All but one of the women photographed gave Malone permission to print their full names, many after decades of silence. 

The image and story are striking not only because of the sheer number of on-the-record survivors but because typically, we don’t learn victims’ names from the media. Out of sensitivity to people who have endured trauma and a lingering cultural idea that being raped is shameful, those who report sexual violence are typically called “Jane” and “John Doe”—pseudonyms that evoke unidentified corpses. The long list of real names here is a viscerally affecting reminder of the alleged victims’ humanity and individuality.

It is also, let’s be honest, a bulwark against accusations that these women are smearing Cosby in hopes of personal gain, without any public accountability on their part. (Who wants to remember when Cosby’s female former co-stars publicly defended him, and even suggested that there was some conspiracy to destroy his legacy? That was earlier this year. Who wants to remember when Cosby’s legal team condemned the media for “one-sided reporting” about the dozens of women offering their sides of the story? That was six days ago.) For those of us who pay attention to all the ways in which women’s voices are dismissed, silenced, and ridiculed when they report assaults, it’s exhilarating to know that at this point, only the staunchest rape apologist could still refuse to give these testimonies serious consideration. 

It’s also more than a little depressing. Testimony is legitimate evidence, but when it comes to sex crimes, it’s rarely sufficient to merit an arrest, let alone a conviction. In a “he said/she said” situation, someone is obviously lying, and the stakes are impossibly high: If you get it wrong, either an innocent person will be arrested, or a rapist will go free. For sanity’s sake, it’s so much easier to believe that people lie about being victims all the time, and therefore, consistently refusing to act on reports of sexual assault or rape is a noble effort to protect the innocent. 

In reality, only a small percentage of those reports are proven false, but we’ve essentially created a situation in which everyone gets at least one free rape; unless there’s evidence beyond the victim’s word that any sex between two parties wasn’t consensual, chances are excellent that the perpetrator can get away with it. After more than one victim tells a similar story, chances of their alleged rapist suffering consequences increase, but even that’s no guarantee. Some accused sex offenders get a few freebies before anyone really pays attention to the reports. 

Cosby got at least 13.

That’s how many women were involved in a lawsuit against America’s Dad that was settled in 2006—the one Scocca brought up last year, months before Hannibal Buress’s bit about Cosby went viral. The one we all silently agreed to forget, to the point where, a year and a half ago, we got angry that we even had to hear about it again. At least until yet more women came forward, and many refused to be written off as Jane Does. And then more, and more, and more. 

Even if there had been no truth to any of those 13 testimonies, even if no other voices had emerged later, how the fuck did we justify that to ourselves, America? How did we collectively decide that 13 reports of sexual assault were essentially forgettable? 

And in light of that, at what point do we admit that—with the possible exception of armed-stranger-in-an-alley situations—we just flat-out don’t care about sexual violence? We say we do, but we don’t. Not nearly as much as we care about preserving our positive impressions of powerful men we’ve never met and probably never will, in any case. 

Who wants to remember all of this the next time a celebrity is accused of serious crimes? 

I don’t want to, but I will. I will force myself to remember, on behalf of all the victims who can’t forget. Maybe you will, too. And maybe next time, it won’t take 35 brave women and one painfully empty chair to make a difference. 

Kate Harding is co-author of "The Book of Jezebel" and "Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere," and author of the forthcoming "Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It." Find her on Twitter @kateharding.
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Kate Harding