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Why we were so desperate to ignore the Bill Cosby rape allegations

Bill Cosby speaks at the Thurgood Marshall Awards gala in November 2013
Bill Cosby speaks at the Thurgood Marshall Awards gala in November 2013
(Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Thurgood Marshall College Fund)

If Shonda Rhimes had a show called How to Get Away With Rape, it would only need one episode, and it would be a short one.

The hot-shot lawyer main character would give her client this advice: be a respected figure in your own community and target victims with lower status than your own. If you follow those rules, people will be uncomfortable with the consequences of believing your victims. They will not want to do that work. In fact, they will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.

Show over; roll credits.

On Tuesday, Janice Dickinson became the 15th woman to accuse Bill Cosby of raping, drugging, or sexually assaulting her, and the fifth to do so publicly. These women tell a similar story: that they met Cosby when they were young women. That he spent time with them under the guise of professional mentorship. And that he, at some point, drugged their drinks and assaulted them while they were incapacitated.

These allegations are not new. Although more women have come forward publicly in recent weeks, the rape allegations against Cosby have been public knowledge for nearly a decade, since Andrea Constand filed a 2005 lawsuit alleging that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted her.

Thirteen other women were willing to testify in support of Constand's suit, and tell their own stories of mistreatment by Cosby. And so, from the very beginning, this has not been Cosby's word against his alleged victim's, but rather his word against his alleged victim's, plus another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's, and another alleged victim's.

But the women's allegations never became major news. Cosby settled the suit, and no one talked about it much in the decade that followed. He remained a member in good standing of American public life. He spoke to audiences across the country about the importance of morality and good behavior, particularly among African Americans. He landed a Netflix special and a new NBC series, although the series has been dropped and the special "postponed" amid this week's news.

Our fear of believing the victims

When the allegations re-surfaced this month, Cosby seemed to expect that they would be ignored once again. When NPR asked about them during an interview, Cosby fell silent and shook his head. Shortly thereafter, his lawyer released a terse statement saying that the women's claims were "decade-old, discredited allegations" and that Cosby would not be commenting further. (The silence from the Cosby camp didn't last long — his attorney has since released a statement calling Dickinson's claims "a complete lie.") It seems that this story is here to stay. But why did it take so long to become news?

Believing or even paying attention to the allegations against Cosby would have required us all to do work and make sacrifices, and we didn't want to do that. Ignoring his accusers meant that we got to keep our happy childhood memories of the Cosby Show. Ignoring his accusers meant that we got to keep laughing at Cosby's classic standup routines, which still hold up, even after all those years.  Ignoring his accusers meant that we got to keep Cosby as a powerful cultural figure.

Believing the accusers, or just entertaining the thought that they could be telling the truth, meant that we would have to come to terms with the knowledge that someone we accepted into our lives, someone whose art we loved, had the capacity to commit this evil act, over and over. We didn't want to do that. So, for a long time, we didn't — until comedian Hannibal Buress made the decision to come at the king, and did not miss.

Beyond Bill Cosby

This isn't just a Bill Cosby problem. The same pattern plays out, over and over again, every time we're asked to confront allegations against someone we care about. We want to enjoy our Woody Allen and our Roman Polanski and our Penn State football. We don't want that enjoyment tainted by a sense of complicity in the terrible crimes they are accused of.

The same thing is true of allegations against our friends, family, and co-workers: if we believe these accusations, then that means we have to re-evaluate our own lives and relationships, and do the work of deciding if and how to remove the perpetrator from them.

But if we dismiss or disbelieve or even just ignore the allegations, then we don't have to do that work, or make those sacrifices. It's easier, even if it's wrong.

The same incentives apply to institutions — even those that are supposed to keep us safe. A recent study of police officers in a small midwestern city found that they perceived rape allegations as a potential threat to their time and resources. They were reluctant to even investigate crimes in which the victim had been drinking, or in which there were no obvious signs of injuries or physical violence. As Slate's Amanda Hess wrote earlier this week, the officers saw no distinction between allegations that weren't true, and those that would be difficult to prove in court: they perceived both as a waste of their time. In other words, they didn't want to do the work.

A different investigation revealed similar attitudes in New Orleans, where detectives have systematically refused to investigate rape allegations. One of the officers involved told three different people that he "did not believe that simple rape should be a crime." The Justice Department found that, by routinely discouraging sexual assault victims from pursuing criminal charges against their attackers, the police department effectively shut down investigation for a significant proportion of possible sex crimes.

The officers' attitude is appalling, and it's entirely reasonable to condemn them for failing in their duties towards their communities. But at the same time, they were not necessarily wrong in their assessment of which cases were likely to result in convictions and which ones would result only in a closed case file on a shelf.

Juries are made up of people like us. Like us, they are able to see the consequences of routinely believing victims of sexual assault, and how radical those consequences are — it would mean that our beloved artists and writers and sports stars and mentors and friends could essentially be taken from us at any time, and that people we think we know and trust could be revealed to be monsters.

Our fear of that world makes us do bad things. It makes us search for reasons to dismiss and silence victims, even as studies show that false rape accusations are incredibly rare. It makes us wonder if the victim was trying to "get something" from the accused, as if making public accusations of rape against a powerful man is a path to easy riches as opposed to character assassination, harassment, and ruin. It makes juries notoriously eager to blame victims for their own sexual assaults. (Just this week, a California jury refused to award damages to a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by her teacher, after accepting the school district's defense that she had been partially responsible for her own rape.)

And all that ends up meaning that, while it is theoretically illegal to do what these 15 women accuse Cosby of doing, it might as well not be.

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