‘Tis the season for the sort of news that can completely alter a person’s public image: Bill Cosby, a comedian known for his family friendly style of comedy, has been accused of more than 15 cases of sexual assault. Though such allegations have only recently come to light in the media, stories of Cosby’s unscrupulous behavior have reportedly spanned nearly a decade. Camille Cosby, Bill Cosby’s wife, has come to his defense in the face of all of this, assuring the public that he is “the man you thought you knew,” criticizing the media for the way in which they have recently portrayed him, and ultimately posing the question: “who is the victim here?”, indicating clearly that she feels certain of her husband’s innocence, while also shifting the blame from him to the women who have made all such allegations. Camille Cosby must genuinely love her husband and believe that he is innocent, and, moreover, she has every right to have and express an opinion about the way that the media has handled the allegations against him, but her question of “who is the victim here?” reflects rape culture as a whole as well as the way in which we too often look at and perceive cases of sexual assault: to answer her question, the only victims of rape and molestation are those who are raped and molested. If a person is wrongly accused of a crime and this results in the dismantling of his or her reputation, then yes, he or she is a “victim” in that sense. However, though I am certainly in no position to say definitively if there is truth to all or any of these allegations, I somehow doubt that more than 15 different women fabricated stories of being drugged and assaulted by Cosby, especially as many of them are financially well off already, and probably wouldn’t need or want to choose something as personal and almost stigmatized as sexual assault as a means of swindling money. It is time, in my opinion, that we stop regarding cases of rape and assault as rooted in so many shades of gray, and start lending more faith and credit to the women who are brave enough to speak up when they are victims of these crimes.
We live in a society that teaches women how to avoid getting raped instead of telling men not to rape in the first place. We are told to travel in groups, not to bring unwanted attention to ourselves from our clothing or behavior, and not to otherwise put ourselves in any sort of vulnerable situation. Sure, it’s not very smart to accept a drink from a sketchy stranger at a bar, but there’s something deeply flawed about telling women that they need to prevent their own rape. Men shouldn’t rape, regardless of what a woman is doing, saying, or wearing, and it’s no more complicated than that. When we adopt the mindset that women are responsible for avoiding assault, it makes it that much easier to blame her, instead of her attacker, when she does get raped or molested. We ask, “what was she wearing?”, “what was she doing?”, “why did she leave with him?” Not many other crimes are thought about in terms of a victim blaming mentality- when a store is robbed, do we blame the store owner? No. When someone is murdered, do we ask why he or she didn’t fight back? No. It should not be any different when it comes to rape. Over-complicating these cases can give rise to the sort of questions posed by Camille Cosby: “who is the victim here?” The answer is simply the individuals who are subjected to sexual violence, and no one else.
Camille Cosby’s concern for her husband is not the only time that those accused and/or guilty of rape have been shown sympathy because of a jeopardized reputation. The two boys found guilty in the well known Steubenville rape case, for example, were pitied by individuals and major news sources alike, mostly because of their now damaged reputations and promising futures. The sad thing about sympathizing with rapists isn’t just that we are taking pity on those guilty of a heinous crime, but also that it makes it so much more likely that women will be even more reluctant to report a sexual assault. It is already the case that most rapes go unreported, and this will only continue if we blame women for being raped, and treat rapists as victims, to some extent. The question “who is the victim here?” is at face value an innocuous enough question coming from a concerned wife, but when examined further it has implications deeply rooted in a rape culture that needs to be altered. Being held accountable for a crime does not make you a victim. Rather, it means that the true victims in crimes of sexual assault had the courage to speak up, and it is my hope that many other women will follow suit.