When I saw New York Magazine’s #TheEmptyChair cover, I was simply moved to tears. I had no other reaction than to cry. Having been an advocate against campus sexual assault and focusing much of my studies on violence against women during my undergraduate career, I have been treading the waters of whether or not my work is done now that I am no longer a student. I kept asking myself, “Is there room for my passion for this issue in the ‘real world?’”
This cover jolted me to an answer. It was one of the first things I saw after opening my eyes that morning. Still in a dreamy state, I opened my twitter in an effort to preserve a few extra minutes in bed before succumbing to the second alarm I had set.
There it was: the cover. It was as if the word “Yes” was sitting on that empty chair, telling me that not only is there room for my passion, there is a need.
Throughout the day, I began taking in the article little by little. Each of the 35 women (out of the total number of 46 who have come forward) has an intricate story to tell, framed in the larger picture of the article as a whole. There are written personal statements, videos, and multiple portraits of the women. The entire feature is beautiful, and so much of the talk around it is just as moving—from #TheEmptyChair to the individuals who anonymously disclosed their truths as a result.
In viewing all of this, I have been extremely moved by the bravery of these women and all others who have ever sat in #TheEmptyChair—by their extreme resiliency. However, it has all struck a chord with me. In the written statements, videos, and photographs, the women are truly laying themselves bare. They are putting their souls up on the chopping board—some disassociating from the pain in order to tell their story, some angry, some losing their sentences in a sudden burst of sobs. As an activist, I am always so happy to see survivors being given the space to tell their truths.
Despite this happiness, I can’t help but think of all those who up until this cover, or up until the seal on the documents from the 2005 case against Cosby was removed, or until it took all 46 women to come forward, or until Hannibal Buress made a joke about the situation, or until whatever marker of “authenticity” were simply unconvinced that a woman would be telling the truth about being sexually assaulted. Why must an extreme show of authenticity be necessary for them to believe something an individual would get no benefit from lying from?
Now, before I go any further, I will mention this to get it out of the way. I realize that false rape accusations are real. However, all of the legitimate, scientific studies that have been done on this matter indicate that the rate of false rape allegations is on par with the rate of false allegations of other crimes. Further, many states record allegations as “false” when an individual incorrectly identifies a crime that is legally classified as sexual assault or molestation, despite the crime having occurred in actuality. There are also large numbers of individuals who are in abusive relationships who end up saying that their real experiences were lies due to the intimidating nature of intimate partner violence. All in all, the argument that people did not believe the women because they were seeking a fair presentation of facts is simply bullshit. If you don’t doubt every person who says they’ve experienced a crime, doubting someone because the crime is rape is quite literally based in ignorance.
This entire spectacle of the survivors of Cosby’s violence has made me think of why our society only began their concern over campus sexual assault when Emma Sulkowicz began her widely publicized Carry That Weight performance art thesis. Or why when apologizing after his conviction, Trent Mays, one of the young men convicted in the Steubenville rape case, apologized for taking and distributing pictures of the survivor—not for raping her. Or why countless survivors had to pen public essays, speak openly at Take Back the Night and similar events, write blogs, make videos, and do more in order for their claims to be taken seriously. This has all begged the question for me—Do we only see sexual violence as wrong when the realities of it are exposed? When we are forced to consume it?
The overall disbelief of the women who survived Cosby’s violence that persisted for so long seems to indicate that many people do not want to believe the realities of sexual violence unless they are forced to do so. I understand Cosby is a cultural icon; I am from Philadelphia, a city that adores him. There were pictures of him up as decoration in my pediatrician’s office growing up. However, when I first heard of the violence he had committed against these women—I did not waste a second in believing them. Because the truth is, no matter how hard it is, we have to start believing those who come forward regardless of whether they do so on a cover of a magazine or softly, in private, to you as your friend. By doing this, we can start to take the necessary steps forward to change the way our society will do anything to avoid talking about this uncomfortable topic. So that every survivor—woman, man, child, LGBT, disabled, poor, POC, etc.—can come forward with ease if that is what they choose. So that it no longer makes more sense to suffer in silence for years because that poses less obstacles than telling your truth.