On April 26th, after decades of mounting claims of sexual assault and rape—62 women have come forward in total—a jury found Bill Cosby guilty of sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. This is more than a victory for Constand, who has been fighting for justice since 2005. This verdict sends the message that our society’s response to sexual assault is evolving, and that there is a growing recognition of the trauma it causes survivors. Justice for Constand may signal hope for countless other sexual assault survivors, who might never receive the validation of seeing their rapist convicted.
We can and should celebrate this conviction. We acknowledge that it may signal a shift in our country’s historically dismissive treatment of sexual assault allegations and the survivors who report them. But we also must ask ourselves: What are we doing to address and change a culture that supports violence and assault, outside of the courtroom? If the culture is truly shifting, why are so many women who allege abuse still met with the question, “Why didn’t you report sooner?” Why did 62 women need to come forward before a prosecutor brought charges against Cosby? In the #MeToo era, which aspects of this culture are changing, and which aspects remain the same?
Violence and sexual assault are like the tip of an iceberg. They are visible to us, but they are supported by actions and attitudes that exist well below the surface. Beneath every act of violence and assault against women, there are layers of discrimination, sexist attitudes and beliefs, and the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. Until we focus our efforts on addressing these bottom layers, our solutions will remain temporary and reactive. Challenging this culture is the only way to prevent violence before it occurs.
In 1969, Bill Cosby performed a joke about the drug “Spanish Fly” during a stand up act. Spanish Fly, a popular trope of 1980s fraternity and college movies, was known as an aphrodisiac that would incapacitate a woman if slipped into her drink, making it easier to have sex with her. The joke is met with raucous laughter from the men and women in the audience.
Hearing this joke now is obviously disturbing—both because it is an abhorrent premise and because we now recognize that Cosby was not joking at all—that he did in fact drug and sexually assault women. As we cringe at this joke almost 50 years later, it’s clear that our tolerance of this brand of humor has changed. It’s clear that we’ve made progress. But the truth is that, as a society, we often laugh off sexism and assault. When we make these jokes or laugh along with them, we further normalize predatory behavior and silence victims. We must work harder to convey the harm in this language.
As a more recent example, take Louis C.K.’s jokes about masturbating to and in front of women. Again, we now realize that these jokes were based in reality. As we see in the cases of Cosby and C.K., jokes about women’s appearance and abilities, and especially jokes about violence or sexual assault against women, are more than just jokes. They reveal the negative attitudes and beliefs that exist under the surface, and they suggest that these beliefs are not only normal and acceptable, but humorous. We must embrace our voices to speak out against humor that minimizes rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment.
Men have a unique ability to disrupt sexism, especially in male-dominated spaces, and disruption is necessary for cultivating respect. Speaking out against sexist jokes and comments, objectification, and sexual assault are ways that men can use their voices to stop sexual violence before it occurs.
It has been almost four years since comedian Hannibal Buress referenced Cosby’s abuse in a stand up set that went viral. People paid attention. It was clear that rumors of his abuse had been circulating for years—that women had both publicly and privately accused Cosby of these crimes. Other comedians, most notably Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, made jokes about Cosby being a rapist, but it was only when Buress weighed in that we all took notice. While we applaud Buress for taking a stand to support survivors, we have to ask: Why is it that, so often, we have to hear a woman’s allegations echoed by a man before we take them seriously?
This tendency—to believe men when they repeat women’s accusations—is the reason that men are crucial to changing the culture of violence. Men have a unique ability to disrupt sexism, especially in male-dominated spaces, and disruption is necessary for cultivating respect. Speaking out against sexist jokes and comments, objectification, and sexual assault are ways that men can use their voices to stop sexual violence before it occurs.
While we can and should celebrate the justice and validation that survivors receive from the Cosby verdict, let’s not forget what we have left to accomplish. Let’s use this moment as a reminder that we are fighting for a culture that trusts, supports, and respects ALL survivors, from the very beginning. Let’s remember that we all have a role to play in changing a culture that accepts, supports, and tolerates violence against women.
What are YOU are doing to change this culture? Share with us on social media and tag @NOMOREorg to tell us how you are challenging (or how you will challenge) the ideas and attitudes that have allowed sexual violence to persist.