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The Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations, explained

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 Comedian/actor Bill Cosby performs at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on September 26, 2014, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Comedian/actor Bill Cosby performs at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on September 26, 2014, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

  1. Bill Cosby admitted in 2005 that he had procured Quaaludes to give to women, and said he actually gave the drug to at least one woman, according to documents obtained July 6 by the Associated Press. Dozens of women have accused him of drugging and then sexually assaulting them — allegations he and his lawyer deny.
  2. The testimony was part of a lawsuit filed by a former employee of Temple University. While under oath, according to the documents, Cosby also admitted to giving the Temple employee Benadryl.
  3. His lawyers fought the release of the documents, arguing that their contents would be embarrassing for Cosby. The lawsuit was settled in 2006.

On November 18, 2014, the 15th woman to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault came forward.

In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, former supermodel Janice Dickinson said that Cosby sexually assaulted her in 1982. She recounted a dinner they had in Lake Tahoe, where she said Cosby gave her a "pill, which she asked for because she was menstruating and had stomach pains."

"Before I woke up in the morning," she told ET, "the last thing I remember was Bill Cosby in a patchwork robe, dropping his robe and getting on top of me. And I remember a lot of pain."

This followed an essay published early that month in Hollywood Elsewhere, in which Joan Tarshis, a music industry publicist and journalist, claimed that the comedian drugged and raped her in 1969, when she was 19 years old, and chronicled the alleged encounter in graphic detail. "[A]s more and more of his rape victims have come forward, all telling similar stories, the time is right to join them," she wrote.

Cosby's attorney denied Tarshis's and other recently rehashed allegations, calling them "decade-old, discredited" claims. The fact that women are making the allegations, he said in a statement released to the Associated Press and posted online, "does not make them true."

But why are the "old" and "discredited" rape allegations suddenly in the spotlight? Why are "more and more" alleged victims coming forward in 2014?

It's not because Mark Whitaker's biography of Cosby is out this year. It's not because Bill Cosby 77, a comedy special that promises to offer the 77-year-old's humor related to "relationships, marriage, and children," was scheduled to be released on Netflix November 28, 2014 (before the streaming platform canceled the release). It's because of a quick riff comedian Hannibal Buress did during a show in Philadelphia:

The result is that people are suddenly paying close attention to what women have been saying about Cosby for years.

This focus, 10 years after rape allegations about Cosby first went public, raises questions about how we treat women who say they were sexually assaulted, and why so many of us ignored the allegations against "America's favorite dad" for so long.

What is Cosby accused of?

Janice Dickinson's Entertainment Tonight interview was the 15th sexual assault allegation made against Cosby over many years.

That's a lot of stories, and they can be hard to keep track of. If you want to know who exactly said what, Gawker's Tom Scocca and Vulture's Max Giles have helpful guides.

But here are the basics on the stories that began surfacing about a decade ago: In a 2005 Today show interview, a woman named Tamara Green said Cosby had assaulted her in the 1970s. This was after another woman, Andrea Constand, filed a lawsuit in 2004 accusing Cosby of very similar offenses.

Constand's lawyers produced 11 more women who claimed Cosby had assaulted them, bringing the total number of accusers to 13. The suit was eventually settled, and as part of that agreement, the plaintiff agreed not to discuss her allegations publicly.

Taken together, the allegations paint a disturbing — and consistent — picture. The women accuse him of drugging them with a laced drink or pills and then sexually assaulting them. Cosby denies all the allegations.

Some of the women called as witnesses in Constand's case have spoken out since, sharing their allegations against Cosby with Philadelphia MagazinePeople, the Daily Mail, and the Washington Post. None of them stand to gain anything from coming forward, as the statute of limitations has made it impossible for them to personally sue Cosby.

If this all happened so long ago, why is it in the news now?

The story has reached a fever pitch because of a combination of factors, but it all started with a comedy routine. In October 2014, a clip of comedian Hannibal Buress brutally criticizing Cosby over the allegations in a standup routine went viral.

In an interview with Howard Stern, Buress said he had been doing the bit for months — not in response to any particular piece of recent news about the allegations against Cosby. "It's just a lot of stuff. I just read some stuff and researched. Anybody can get that information," he said.

About a week after the Buress clip made the rounds, the Daily Mail published an interview with a woman named Barbara Bowman, who said that Cosby, whom she called a "monster," had "drugged and raped" her in 1985, when she was 17. She told a similar account in a November 13, 2014, essay she wrote for the Washington Post. Bowman questioned why it took "30 years for people to believe my story" and noted, even more pointedly, that "only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold."

In the midst of all this Cosby's team invited the public to create memes using the actor's face. The meme generator was quickly mocked as a "massive social media fail" for its poor timing, as Twitter users took advantage of the tool provided on his website to criticize Cosby over the newly resurfaced rape allegations.

How has Cosby responded?

When Cosby was asked about the accusations in a November 15, 2014, interview on NPR's Weekend Edition, he remained silent, shaking his head in response to questions.

But Cosby, who has never been prosecuted, has done more in the past than just silently shake his head at the sexual assault allegations. Over the years, he has  — most often in statements through his lawyers, but sometimes in his own words — completely denied them.

After Tamara Green was interviewed on the Today show in 2005, Cosby's lawyer issued the following statement: "Miss Green's allegations are absolutely false. Mr. Cosby does not know the name Tamara Green or (maiden name) Tamara Lucier, and the incident she describes did not happen. The fact that she may have repeated this story to others is not corroboration."

When Newsweek ran an interview with Green in 2014, Cosby's representative said, "This is a 10-year-old, discredited accusation that proved to be nothing at the time, and is still nothing."

Cosby admitted to having sex with Constand, another accuser, but said it was consensual. His lawyer told CNN that her rape allegations were "utterly preposterous" and "plainly bizarre."

"Looking back on it, I realize that words and actions can be misinterpreted by another person, and unless you're a supreme being, you can't predict what another individual will do," Cosby told the National Enquirer in March 2005. But he hinted that Constand was trying to "exploit" him because of his celebrity status.

In November 2014, John P. Schmitt, a lawyer for Cosby, made the following statement, which he said would be the last on the topic:

"Over the past several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Bill Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.

Why hasn't Cosby ever been prosecuted?

Constand's lawsuit against him settled out of court. That's the legal reason for the resolution of her claims.

But there are other, more complicated factors that explain why Cosby hasn't had to go before a court to defend himself. For one, at least one of his alleged victims said she held back because she didn't feel her claims would be taken seriously.

"As a teenager, I tried to convince myself I had imagined it. I even tried to rationalize it: Bill Cosby was going to make me a star, and this was part of the deal," Bowman wrote in her Washington Post piece. And in a CNN interview, she said she'd approached a lawyer in 1989 for a consultation on potential legal action against Cosby, but "he laughed me right out of the office."

At that point, Bowman said, she "just gave up" on seeking justice through the legal system.

How has Cosby's fame informed the response to this?

Of course, 15 allegations of sexual assault against anyone — famous or not — would be disturbing.

But Cosby's public image seems to have colored the reaction to the allegations against him in a couple of ways.

The fact that the allegations against him are so shockingly incongruous with Cliff Huxtable, the wholesome, good-natured, beloved dad he played on The Cosby Show, could partly explain why there was so little attention paid to them for so long.

According to this theory, Americans simply weren't willing to hear information about sexual assault allegations that risked tarnishing our image of the man. (However, people have known for some time that Cosby wasn't a real-life Cliff Huxtable: married for 50 years to wife Camille, he's publicly admitted to infidelity).

A very different set of public impressions of Cosby also help to explain the recent attention to the allegations against him. In his post-Cosby Show years, he has used his platform to admonish African Americans and broadly criticize black culture. He wasn't widely hated for it, but he was no longer uniformly adored.

Critics said this commentary — characterized by his disgust for backward hats, sagging pants, traditionally African-American names, and what he saw as misplaced priorities — was irresponsible and out of touch, promoting dangerous ideas about black pathology that obscured the role of systemic racism in people's lives.

And it was this very sentiment about Cosby that inspired Buress's comedy bit —  the one that brought all of the allegations back into the public eye in October.

The younger comedian took aim at the hypocrisy behind what he called Cosby's "smuggest old black man public persona":

It's even worse because Bill Cosby has the fuckin' smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. He gets on TV, "Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the '80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!" Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches. "I don't curse on stage!" But yeah you're a rapist, so... I'd take you saying lots of "motherfuckers" on Bill Cosby himself if you weren't a rapist.

Cosby's decades worth of performances also offer plenty of material to scrutinize for evidence of an inclination toward the type of conduct the 15 women accuse him of. And it turns out he did joke about spiking women's drinks on his 1969 LP, It's True! It's True! The bit, which was uncontroversial at the time, takes on more somber meaning in light of the allegations against him.

How does all this fit into a larger conversation about rape culture?

The new attention to the allegations against Cosby comes against the backdrop of a quickly evolving conversation about rape and rape culture.

The FBI has broadened its definition of rape to ditch the word "forcible." A new California law that attracted national attention makes active consent the standard for sex on college campuses — meaning sex with someone who is too intoxicated to give their permission, like many of Cosby's accusers say they were, is characterized by schools as assault.

Those changing attitudes could be part of what's fueled widespread scorn toward Cosby: There's Buress's harsh bit on him, all of the mocking memes, and the two publications running his accuser's story back to back.

And Bowman's observation hangs over all of this: "Only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold."

If nothing else, discussions around the accusations against Cosby — even if the discussions are a decade late — have highlighted a culture that can discourage women from coming forward with sexual assault allegations. And not just in cases where the alleged attacker is "America's favorite dad."

The list of allegations against Cosby continues to grow

Additional women have come forward to accuse Cosby of sexual assault since mid-November 2014:

  • On November 20, 2014, Love, American Style actress Louisa Moritz told TMZ that Cosby forced her to perform oral sex on him in a Tonight Show green room in 1971.
  • On November 20, 2014,  Therese Serignese, who was one the 13 women called as a witness in Constand's 2004 case but had not yet spoken publicly about her allegations, told the Huffington Post that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1967.
  • On November 20, 2014, Carla Ferrigno told the Daily Mail that Cosby grabbed and kissed her at a 1967 party.
  • Model Angela Leslie told the Daily News on November 20 that Cosby stripped naked and forced her to masturbate him in a Las Vegas hotel room in 1992.
  • Renita Chaney Hill, who appeared with Cosby on the children's educational program Picture Pages, told KDKA in November 2014 that she now believes Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her when she was a teenage aspiring actress in the 1980s. Hill said she had what she thought was a mentoring relationship with Cosby, and that he paid her college tuition. "I always thought it was odd that after I had this drink I would end up in my bed the next morning and I wouldn't remember anything," she said.

  • Former Playboy Playmate Victoria Valentino alleged in a Washington Post piece published in November 2014 that Cosby drugged and raped her in the 1970s.

  • In November 2014, model Jewel Allison told the New York Daily News that Cosby drugged and assaulted her in the 1980s.

  • Judy Huth filed a lawsuit on December 2, 2014, claiming that when she was 15 years old, Cosby took her to the Playboy Mansion and sexually molested her. Within days, Cosby filed his own lawsuit against her, saying her allegations were "meritless and unsupported," and claiming that she tried to blackmail him before filing the lawsuit.

  • At a December 3, 2014, press conference called by attorney Gloria Allred, Helen Hayes said Cosby stalked her "like a predator" and grabbed her breast in 1973. A woman who went only by the name "Chelan" said Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in Las Vegas in 1986. Beth Ferrier, one of the anonymous witnesses in the 2005 lawsuit against Cosby, said he drugged and assaulted her in the 1980s.

  • In a December 11, 2014, essay for Vanity Fair, former supermodel Beverly Johnson wrote  that the TV icon "drugged me with the intention of doing God knows what" in the 1980s.

Vulture continues to update a complete timeline of the growing list of allegations against Cosby, all of which he and his attorneys deny.

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