The conviction of a high-profile rapist sends a message women rarely hear: rape is wrong. Cosby’s release snatches that away
Bill Cosby was released from a Pennsylvania prison on Wednesday after the Pennsylvania supreme court vacated his 2018 conviction for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. Cosby, who has been accused of a pattern of drugging women and then raping or sexually assaulting them while they were unconscious, is out on a technicality: the court found that a prosecutor mishandled incriminating testimony that the comedian had given in a 2004 civil suit, and hence threw out his 2018 criminal trial. But according to the court’s ruling, Cosby cannot be retried, either. His release on these charges is final. He will never serve another day in prison for the assault of Andrea Constand.
Though it was Constand’s accusation that sent Cosby to prison for three years, the television star has been accused of similar assaults by dozens of women. Their claims span decades, and are remarkably consistent. Some, like Constand, took pills that Cosby told them were herbal supplements. Others simply woke up, without any recollection of what happened, undressed and in pain. More than a dozen of these women testified in the 2004 civil suit; more went public as the years went on, and Cosby’s career and reputation remained unchanged. In a 2014 interview with Vice, one of Cosby’s alleged victims, Barbara Bowman, described allegations she had been told by other women who said they had been attacked by Cosby: “Some of them escaped by crawling out of the door and crawling into the street and somehow getting home, barely conscious.”
As of this writing, more than 60 women have come forward to claim that they were drugged and attacked by Cosby. The number is large enough that it can acquire the sterility of a statistic. But it is worth dwelling on how large a number it is. If you have a moment, try counting to 60. It takes a long time.
And so though it was only his attack of Constand that Cosby was formally charged and tried for, his conviction was a vindication for all of his victims. District attorneys in some of the jurisdictions where Cosby allegedly attacked these women, such as Los Angeles, have declined to bring charges; other accusers find that their attacks happened outside the statute of limitations; still other women did not have enough corroborating evidence to make their claims feasible to win, or appealing to a prosecutor to charge. Constand was different: in her case, the stars had aligned to make her attack eligible, her case winnable, and a prosecutor willing. For all the other women Cosby attacked, his conviction was the closest thing to justice that they are ever likely to get. Now that he is free, and his conviction overturned, that partial, and indirect vindication has been revoked. It was already less than what they deserved, and now, it has been taken away.
The scale of sexual violence is so great, and consequences so rare, that in cases like Cosby’s, a high-profile trial offers many women a moment of minor catharsis
Even though they were not able to bring criminal charges against Cosby, those 59 other women who have publicly accused him of drugging and attacking them are already different from the majority of sexual assault victims, who never come forward at all. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, or Rainn, approximately 70% of sexual assaults are never reported – a much higher rate of non-reporting than for other violent crimes. And of that small minority of attacks that are reported, only about 16% are ever prosecuted – a much lower prosecution rate than for other violent crimes. For all the pious niceties issued by police and prosecutors about the gravity of sexual violence and the courage shown by survivors, the truth is that the neither police nor district attorneys behave as if they really feel that sexual assault is as serious an issue as they claim. Attacks of the kind that Cosby carried out are often felt as deeply painful and humiliating to the victims (“Bill Cosby took my beautiful, healthy young spirit and crushed it,” Constand has said of her assault), but it is not treated with anything like a commensurate solemnity by the criminal justice system.
And so for the millions of women who saw Cosby be convicted in 2018, his trial was a rare opportunity to experience a vindication by proxy for the rapes, assaults and indignities that they themselves had suffered, committed by men they know will never see the inside of a courtroom. The scale of sexual violence is so great, and the instance of consequences for it is so rare, that in cases like Cosby’s, a high-profile trial offers many women a moment of minor catharsis – even when it is not their attacker, even when their own attacker will never face any justice at all. They cannot make the system fair for themselves, or for the man who attacked them. But they can see it be fair for another women, and see another man get part of what he deserves. The conviction of a high-profile rapist thereby sends a social message that women rarely hear: that rape is wrong, and that sometimes, institutions will actually behave as if it is wrong.
Cosby’s release snatches away that symbolism, and the hope it represents, offering instead the cold certainty that rape will not be punished; that the law recognizes women as citizens only in the abstract; that society punishes violence only when it is not gender violence. Cosby’s conviction was overturned based on a minor legal point, and seems to have been the product of prosecutorial incompetence. But the details are almost immaterial in the wake of his release, which in hindsight feels as if it was inevitable. Of course he was not going to be punished; of course no legal body would find that those women – even together, even in their great numbers – were as important as he was. For me, part of the insult of Cosby’s release is that it makes me realize I was stupid for not predicting it. After all, this is why most sexual violence accusers don’t come forward in the first place: they already know that justice is not on offer.
- Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist