Why did it take 30 years? That’s the question Barbara Bowman, one of the 15 women to level sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, asked in her essay in the Washington Post this week.
And it is a pivotal question, because the answers speak loudly to what has changed in our culture — and what has not — when a powerful man is accused of rape.
Cosby’s history of allegedly drugging young women and then forcing them to have sex has been an open secret in Hollywood for decades. The alleged rapes themselves are said to date back to the 1960s. Cosby has included jokes about drugging young women to make them amorous since 1969 — something called Spanish Fly played a surprisingly big role in the public imagination back then — jokes he repeated live to Larry King in 1991. The attempts by victims to make themselves heard began more than a decade ago.
Former model Janice Dickinson now says she tried to write about being assaulted by Cosby in her 2002 memoir but was convinced by her publisher, under pressure from the Cosby camp, to leave her most devastating accusations out. Tamara Green, a California lawyer, told her story on the "Today Show" in 2005 when she was only the “second Cosby accuser.” But there were no consequences for Cosby, and Matt Lauer all but apologized to viewers for doing the interview in the first place. The following year, 13 women were scheduled to testify to their separate tales of drugs and sex in a civil suit brought by Andrea Constand, but she settled with Cosby in 2006 for an undisclosed sum. Over the past two weeks the charges have snowballed, and Cosby has found himself on his heels as Netflix, NBC and TV Land all dropped planned projects featuring him or decided to stop airing some of his existing work.
The question is: Why now? What is it about this particular moment that has given this old news not only attention, but explosive, insistent, unrelenting traction?
The obvious but incomplete explanation is the Internet. Comedian Hannibal Burris was not the first to strike out at Cosby this fall, when in October he delivered a scathing standup routine calling the 77-year-old comedian a rapist. That honor went to the many reviewers of a biography of Cosby by former Newsweek editor Mark Whittaker, whose glaring omission of even a mention of the rape allegations in his 500-page book came in for withering criticism a month earlier. But the Internet was key, and the Cosby camp’s online response to viral video of Burris’ routine inadvertently fanned the flames, offering up a meme generator that, while meant as a way for viewers to show support (and to laugh off the charges as Cosby had successfully done in the past), quickly itself became a source of rape jokes.
But why did Burris’ comments go viral? Why did the Cosby rape meme take hold? What led so many to Share and Like and Comment in outrage when the very same charges had failed to resonate before?
Simply put, the facts haven’t changed — or at least not by much. But we have.
For decades, those who accused Cosby did so in the context of a world inclined not to believe them. Against a backdrop that saw “he said/she said” and deemed it just too complicated to sort out, and therefore looked away. At a time when good people, if pressed, would admit that they just couldn’t believe that a woman wasn’t somehow encouraging a man, particularly a powerful “catch” of a one.
Cosby, after all, wasn’t the only famous man we knew about but didn’t want to know. Look at the allegations against singer R. Kelly, meticulously documented 15 years ago by the Chicago Sun-Times but essentially ignored by every other news outlet. And Lauer was not the only journalist who found it uncomfortable to air the Cosby charges. Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, known for saying it as he sees it, profiled Cosby in 2008 and did not mention the allegations even though, he says now, “I believed Bill Cosby was a rapist.”
That Coates is publicly apologizing for his lapse now (“I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them”); that the Village Voice is taking up the cause of R. Kelly’s alleged teenage victims anew; that Dominique Strauss-Kahn looks like he will actually stand trial, for “aggravated pimping,” after being repeated accused by women but not the legal system; that Canadian radio star Jian Ghomeshi was fired after several women said publicly that he’d sexually attacked them — all these are signs that something is different.
Now we accept that the football player who says “she fell and hit her head” can be proved wrong by the videotape. Now we have heard — really heard — the voices of too many college women telling us they don’t feel safe from their classmates on campus. Now we see the same facts differently. As Hanna Rosin wrote in Slate, “now that we know what we know, or, perhaps now that we know it at a time of heightened awareness about sexual assault….”
It is the way of history. Good people used to think one thing and then come to think something else. Often dismissed as political correctness, it is actually simple progress. And it is slow.
In the “we have come a long way but not far enough department,” there are still plenty of examples. Take the president of Lincoln University, Robert R. Jennings, who recently told a gathering of female students that rape allegations were too often lies by “young women who after having done whatever they did with young men, and after it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to turn out, guess what they did? They then went to Public Safety and said, ‘He raped me.’” Jennings warned the women to remember that a rape charge could ruin a poor young man’s life because he might actually go to jail. That a man might actually have committed a crime and that the actual conviction rate for rapes on campuses is shockingly low seemed of little concern to Jennings.
That was in September — so stupidity and victim blaming are not completely relics of the past. But because of the Internet, students and parents easily shared the video (now there's always a video) of Jennings’ speech. And because of the evolving public understanding of rape, there was outrage at that video, along with demands that Jennings resign. Add to that the new federal regulations that Jennings refers to, which give teeth to the requirement that schools report campus sexual assault charges to the authorities instead of continuing to handle them internally, and quietly.
There are growing expectations that Cosby should face consequences as well. Not legal ones, because the statute of limitations has expired, but perhaps other punishments, and pulling his body of work, past and future, from the airwaves is the first of those. TV Land’s decision means that 30 years after "The Cosby Show" debuted, nearly half a century after the first alleged incident, and more than a decade after the first public allegations were made, it became time for Cosby to pay a price.
He is still scheduled to appear in Florida tonight, but it’s a safe bet he won’t be making any Spanish Fly jokes. Times have changed. And so has the way his audience will hear him.