As the revelations of Bill Cosby’s disgusting behavior over the last four decades have finally trickled out, the question I keep getting asked, as someone who’s been fighting in the trenches against sexual assault for as long as Cosby has allegedly been committing such acts with impunity, is how and why so many women kept silent for so long.
To put it another way: how did he get away with it for all these years?
In a must-read cover story in last week’s New York Magazine, 35 of those women, many of them now in their 50s and beyond, give their own answers. While the details differ, the melody is the same.
You see, “no” didn’t used to really mean “no,” even if you could prove you said no (not easy, since rapes are rarely committed in front of witnesses), especially if you knew the man.
“You’re not claiming that’s rape.”
I’ll never forget one of my then-colleagues asking me about my “tenure piece” and its focus on sexual assaults by men the victims knew. This was 1983. Oh, yes, I was.
“Real Rape,” I called it, because it was only after being informed in some detail that I was raped by a perfect stranger wielding an ice pick in my parking lot in broad daylight that most people would accept that I was “really” raped.
That’s how I learned that 9 percent of all women are raped by men they know, and that often these women don’t report the crimes because they know they’ll just be victimized again by the system. As if it hurts less, somehow, to be injured and invaded and abused when it’s by someone you know — even someone you admire.
That’s also how I learned what happens when you refuse to be silent. My mother told me no man would ever have me, to tell no one, lest the “shame” somehow attach to me permanently. I was 20. I think I believed her.
There is a line in the New York Magazine story that brought tears to my eyes. After explaining that in the 1970s (and the ’80s and ’90s, I’m sorry to say) women who spoke out, particularly against men with status and power (the kind of “appropriate men” who treat hotel employees like toilet paper) were liable to be attacked themselves (the “nuts and sluts” defense, I started calling it in the ’80s, i.e., she must be a nut or a slut and therefore it’s not real rape), the author goes on to describe the attitudes of a new generation of women.
“But among younger women, and particularly online, there is a strong sense now that speaking up is the only thing to do, that a woman claiming her own victimhood is more powerful than any other weapon in the fight against rape.”
When I wrote my tenure piece, the first line was “A man held an ice pick to my throat and said, ‘Push over, shut up or I’ll kill you.’”
“Put the date in,” my friend, colleague and now Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow said, “because this book is going to be around for a long time.”
It has. But the Harvard Law Review — of which I’d been president, the first female to hold the title, coming up for tenure — rejected it because the “tone” was too personal. Could I just drop the first section, the one entitled “My Story”?
Today’s younger women are right. I have been a woman claiming my own victimhood for the last 35 years. It has not made the pain go away, because it never really does, but the thought that all of our pain — the silent screams and the ones you can hear — has finally begun to penetrate the fortresses of denial; that young women are being supported when they speak out and not told “no man will have you” or to “just drop the personal stuff”; that the usual shove-it-under-the-carpet investigation now at least triggers an investigation of the investigation; all of it helps explain why, as one of Cosby’s alleged victims put it, “I’m no longer afraid.”
I wish I could say the same. I will spend the rest of my life afraid, as so many of us do, but we will not be silenced.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.