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We Have to Do Better for Survivors: How the Bill Cosby Mistrial Could Deter Other Rape Victims from Coming Forward

By Lynn K. Hall

Bill Cosby
Photo credit: The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia

When you Google the name of the man who raped me when I was eighteen, the top hit says, “There are bad men. And then there are bad man. *** is one of the very worst men.”

When I publicly accused this man of rape, I stood in a sizeable line of survivors. That there were five of us and the details of one of the cases—the girl was young, and disabled, and badly injured by the assault—left no doubt about the credibility of our stories. Our rapist was convicted, incarcerated, and served fourteen months. That may seem like a paltry sentence, and it is, but the point is that he saw the inside of a prison. He is now a registered sex offender with a past which follows him forevermore.

The bigger point: I am believed.

This particular rapist was not the first to sexually assault me. When I was seventeen, I was abused repeatedly by a much older man, a father figure. This person is a respected member of the community in which we lived. He is a combat veteran, a private pilot, and an engineer. Later in life he became a flight instructor and university professor. He donates to charitable causes. He mentors lost children like I was.

Several years later, when I realized the damage he had caused and I understood that he was still in a position of trust for other teenager girls, I reported the sexual abuse to the police. I filed reports in two of the several counties in which he raped me. When the second district decided, like the first, to not file charges, the detective on the case called me. She said in an accusatory tone, “When are you going to stop doing this?” She meant: when was I going to stop trying to ruin the life of an innocent man.

To these detectives and to many of those who knew us at the time, I was a troubled teen who lashed out with fake allegations against a man who had once tried to help me. Some said I wanted it, others said I should have been able to stop it, and still others said it never happened.

I know what it is to be raped and to be believed, and to be raped and to not be believed, all based on the public perception of my perpetrator. I know how the trauma of such a violation can be compounded by being further ostracized and condemned by a community which blames you, “the accuser.”

I can imagine the devastation felt by Cosby’s victims after this month’s declaration of a mistrial. No doubt, the failure to convict him is a step backwards in the fight against sexual violence. With this verdict, we risk reinforcing the message to perpetrators that they can rape with impunity. We also risk reinforcing the message to future victims that their experiences do not count, that they are better off upholding silence than they are to fight back in the wake of their assaults.

And yet, in the eyes of a large part of the public, Cosby’s victims are believed. There may not have been enough evidence to convict, but a majority of the public understands the legal technicalities like statute of limitations. But look at what it has taken to get to this point. Forty of Cosby’s victims have come forward. Thirty-five of the women bravely posed for the cover of New York magazine. These survivors have given countless interviews and endured endless scrutiny. For them, the price of moving Cosby’s crimes into public acknowledgement has been extreme.

Bill Cosby is a case in point for this troublesome dynamic: we either ignore the thousands of rapes which occur on a daily basis—blaming the victims or disregarding them altogether—or we obsess over cases in which we decide to believe. We hyper focus on a particular case, say one at Penn State or one at New Hampshire’s St. Paul’s Prep School, meanwhile failing to acknowledge the epidemic rates of sexual violence. We miss the larger trends.

When we put such attention on single cases, the entire movement to end sexual violence rests on one court decision at a time. Young people who have not yet become victims watch the media coverage already forming unconscious beliefs about what it means to be raped and report, which makes this month’s decision all the more troublesome.

We have to do better for survivors. We must end the duality of headlines or invisibility, and we must learn to acknowledge and treat with respect survivors who tell us their stories even when the perpetrators they name have not already lost public confidence. This is different than violating “innocent until proven guilty” or convicting in the court of public opinion; the focus here is not the perpetrators but rather the survivors, taking care of them and giving them the best chance to heal.

We must step outside our opinions and feelings centered on this single Cosby court case, and recognize that for millions of other survivors, their perpetrators will never enter a courtroom. But that doesn’t make their stories and their wounds any less valid. If anything, it makes their wounds that much more troublesome.


About the Author 

Lynn K. HallLynn Hall is a memoirist, essayist, and activist in the movement to end sexual violence. She is also a mountaineer who has summited each of Colorado’s 14,000-foot-tall peaks and a runner who has completed a 100-mile ultramarathon. She lives in Boulder. Follow her on Twitter at @LynnKHall and visit her website.