Jan 3, 2023
The new Showtime documentary series directed by comedian W. Kamau Bell, “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” brings to the fore a number of difficult but important questions.
Bill Cosby has been accused by more than 60 women of sexual violence – with allegations ranging from rape to drug facilitated sexual assault to sexual battery and other sexual misconduct. The reported incidents involving Cosby date back to 1965, with the first public sexual assault claim coming in 2005 from Andrea Constand, a former director of operations for Temple University women’s basketball.
The docuseries does an excellent job of examining a dissonance that many continue to experience between the public “America’s Dad” persona of Bill Cosby and the odious sexual predator allegations made by countless survivors.
“As a child of Bill Cosby, I was a huge fan of all of his shows and wanted to be a comedian because of him,” W. Kamau Bell said in a statement. “I never thought I’d ever wrestle with who we all thought Cosby was and who we now understand him to be. I’m not sure he would want me to do this work, but Cliff Huxtable definitely would.”
But while I would argue that the public has had plenty of time to understand as well as accept the true nature of Bill Cosby, I believe the most important aspect of the documentary series is the way in which it highlights an overall evolution in the justice system’s handling of sexual assault claims.
“Bill Cosby was a rich, and funny, and I’m sure very bright man. He could have had sex with somebody who agreed to have sex with him. But he wanted to have sex with unconscious women. And that’s deviant,” Dr. Barbara Ziv, a forensic psychiatrist and prosecution witness for the Cosby trial, said in the documentary.
Cosby cultivated a wholesome public persona for decades – focusing on family, education, and social justice in much of his work. As many Cosby accusers note in the documentary, that public image is what caused them to not question offerings of quaaludes and alcohol – even for survivors who didn’t drink. The image Cosby had created not only allowed him to operate as a serial sexual predator, but it also caused many survivors to blame themselves after alleged assaults.
As “We Need to Talk About Cosby” demonstrates, survivors who had intended to question the comedian following alleged incidents would ultimately end up questioning themselves after he suggested they drank too much and caused him to get “the wrong idea.” These are common grooming tactics used by sexual predators in positions of authority.
As I often tell parents of children who are survivors of sexual abuse, although the vast majority of teachers, clergy members, and coaches enter into their professions with good intentions, predators will specifically seek out such positions to gain access to potential victims. Moreover, sexual predators will use their authority to operate – much as Cosby appears to have done – without being suspected of misconduct (and even with impunity).
Bill Cosby was an extremely powerful entertainment figure, often credited with reviving the then-struggling NBC network with his “The Cosby Show” series. As the documentary notes, NBC was actually in the process of developing a new sitcom with Cosby in 2014 despite public reports of sexual assault by multiple survivors surfacing and an undisclosed civil settlement having been reached with Andrea Constand (said settlement has since been estimated at $3.38 million).
It wasn’t until November 2014, when survivor Barbara Bowman published an op-ed in the Washington Post – “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?” – that public pushback began to jeopardize the new NBC deal.
In January 2015, NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt confirmed that the Cosby sitcom revival had been abandoned. But his statements regarding the decision at a Television Critics Association gathering were indicative of how much power Cosby wielded, even in the face of numerous sexual assault claims.
“Yeah, you know, 15 women came out and accused him of – what they accused him of. And while, over the years, we heard some of those accusations and we knew there were a couple of settlements and whatnot, it didn’t seem to be, you know, the sort of thing that was, you know, critical mass. When we realized there seemed to be so much more of it, it wasn’t something that we could just go, ‘Oh, we’re not sure.’ Look, I don’t like to be … He hasn’t been, sort of, proven guilty of anything. So, I don’t want to be the one that says, ‘Guilty until proven innocent,’ but when that many people come out and have similar complaints, and it becomes such a tainted situation, there was no way you could move forward with this,” Greenblatt said in 2015.
And the way the media initially approached survivors’ allegations with skepticism and cynicism is reflective of the power he held for so many decades.
In “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” a montage of survivor interviews on various networks (many conducted by women reporters) demonstrates the former status quo. Some of the questions asked of Cosby survivors included:
Those clips, although only a few years old, are cringeworthy today. I don’t think any journalist or reporter would get away with treating a sexual assault survivor with such disrespect in 2022. But less than a decade ago, victim blaming was the norm.
“We see what happens to individuals who come and make allegations of sexual assault. They find themselves vilified, discredited, every part of their background gets hauled into question. ‘You drank too much, you slept with too many people, you didn’t report, you’re a liar,'” Dr. Barbara Ziv said in the documentary.
And, although there are many advancements that still need to be made, seeing more and more women come forward is an indication of progress. Accordingly, sexual assault survivors may now be more inclined to report crimes knowing that their claims will not automatically fall on deaf ears.
In June 2021, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Bill Cosby’s 2018 sexual assault criminal conviction. Lili Bernard, a survivor who had accused Cosby of sexual violence, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the overturned conviction hit her like a “gut punch, a sucker punch.”
“I have six children. I was trying to go about my morning as a mom,” Bernard, an artist and actress who appeared on “The Cosby Show,” told the newspaper. “I’m trying to gather myself, and I’m just sobbing.”
By and large, the media has portrayed the overturned conviction as a significant setback for sexual assault survivors (and even a vindication for Cosby). That sentiment is also seen throughout the “We Need to Talk About Cosby” documentary.
“I honestly think that the worst part about Cosby being released this way is the impact… the potential impact is has on survivors coming forward tomorrow. At the end of the day, the message, what people understand and what they take from this is that it’s not safe, I shouldn’t tell, nothing will happen, and if it does it probably won’t stick. It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible message to send to women,” Kierna Mayo, former Editor-in-Chief of Ebony Magazine, said in the docuseries.
But as the documentary explains, Cosby was found guilty by a jury and only freed on a procedural issue – one which I would argue was a miscarriage of justice.
In 2005, then-Montgomery County District Attorney, Bruce Castor, reportedly made assurances to Cosby. Said assurances included that he would not be criminally charged for drugging and sexually assaulting Anrea Constand, and that Cosby’s testimony from depositions under oath could never be used against him in a criminal case.
Cosby made a number of incriminating statements during those depositions. Years later, succeeding prosecutors decided to reopen the criminal case against Cosby and file the charges which led to his eventual conviction.
But due to Castor’s quasi-deal, Cosby’s attorneys argued that prosecutors had violated his legal rights by reopening the case (and that he had incriminated himself through testimony that was never to be unsealed). Technically, according to the law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made the right decision. But that certainly doesn’t mean District Attorney Castor ever should have made such an unofficial agreement with Cosby.
Cosby’s conviction being overturned was of course disappointing for any sexual assault survivor or victim advocate. But it’s important to keep in mind that Cosby was never found not guilty and the initial conviction by a jury of his peers is an indication that survivors of sexual assault can obtain justice against even the most powerful men. The overturning of the conviction was based on a procedural issue, but that doesn’t negate the overwhelming evidence against Cosby.
Moreover, the justice obtained by Cosby survivors in civil court deserves far more attention from the media.
As Law.com reported, since 2019, Cosby has settled civil suits by at least eight women who claimed they were sexually assaulted by the comedian. Cosby has gone so far as to assert that he didn’t settle those claims in actuality, noting that AIG, his insurance carrier, would ultimately be responsible for the payouts. But, as with Cosby’s conviction being overturned, that’s actually a small detail that should not overshadow the overall importance of survivors who have successfully secured justice.
As a former sex crimes prosecutor, I’m well aware of the difficulties involved in bringing sexual assault criminal convictions. Though much progress has been made in terms of how survivor witnesses are treated on the stand and how jurors have evolved to appreciate the gravity of such claims, a sexual assault criminal conviction is never a sure thing.
But with the #MeToo Movement, many survivors have come to appreciate that justice for sexual assault claims can be obtained through both criminal and civil lawsuits. And while criminal trials can lead to unexpected reversals like that with the Cosby conviction, civil suits often serve as viable options for survivors who wish to obtain justice on their own terms.
For starters, many sexual assault civil claims can be settled without ever going to trial. And, if they wish, survivors are able to confront their perpetrators publicly (or, in many instances, remain anonymous). While criminal trials may bring a sense of closure for a survivor, civil claims can help you move forward with justice in the form of due financial compensation.
As more survivors come forward with civil claims, sexual violence can be reduced dramatically by sending a message to perpetrators that their actions will have consequences – regardless of power, wealth, or fame.
Samuel Dordulian is a former sex crimes prosecutor and Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County with more than 25 years of experience helping survivors of sexual abuse and assault obtain justice.
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