When allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby first came to light a decade ago, it barely caused a ripple in the public consciousness. When comedian Hannibal Buress called Cosby out as a rapist in 2014, people paid a lot more attention — but many still had a hard time believing that "America's Dad" could be a serial rapist. Now that no fewer than 58 women have come forward saying Cosby sexually assaulted them, the sheer weight of testimony is hard to ignore.
Even so, Cosby still has his defenders. "Did he rape these bitches?" asked comedian Eddie Griffin recently. "Why would you go to the room of a known married man?" Cosby's wife, Camille, has stayed loyal to her husband and business partner, and has even gone so far as to suggest that he's the real victim. Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby's wife on The Cosby Show, has seemed more concerned with the dismantling of her former co-star's legacy than with the women he allegedly assaulted.
Rape is incredibly common (about one in five women experience sexual assault), and false reports are rare (2 to 8 percent). So if a woman comes forward about being raped, Occam's razor suggests she's probably telling the truth. But our tendency as a society is to assume the opposite — that any explanation other than rape, however implausible, must be the correct one. Did she willingly go somewhere alone with her attacker or wear provocative clothing? She must have wanted it. Is her attacker famous or well-loved? She must be lying to get attention.
We often don't want to do the work of reevaluating our personal heroes, of accepting that a powerful man who is a pillar of the community, or a world-renowned artist, or even the leader of the free world, could secretly be a monster. We are even less willing to do that work if someone we know or love is accused. If a man has friends, admirers, and social status, he also has a defense against rape and a claim to sympathy in the public eye.
People don't believe rape victims, because it's easier not to. But it also goes deeper than laziness or loyalty. The widespread disbelief of rape has a complicated history but a relatively simple cause: People don't believe women.
Rape denial has a long, twisted history in human society
Rape culture, and its tendency to blame victims, didn't come out of nowhere. Various legal systems have engaged in it for centuries.
The Code of Hammurabi subjected both the victim and the perpetrator of rape to death sentences — unless the victim was a virgin, in which case the rape was a property crime against her father. Early Hebrew law also sentenced both victim and perpetrator to death, but there were exceptions for the woman if she screamed for help.
The idea that rape is a crime against a woman, and specifically a crime against a woman's body, is relatively new. In ancient Rome, rape was primarily about kidnapping, and any sexual violation was secondary. For most of human history, rape has been treated as a property crime against a woman's husband or father, since they effectively owned her.
For most of American history, women have had to prove that they were chaste and that they put up extreme resistance in order to have any hope of winning a court case. Marital rape has only been illegal in the United States for a few decades, since a husband was considered to have complete authority over his wife. (This dynamic may complicate how we see the wives of accused rapists who were married decades ago, like Camille Cosby or Hillary Clinton, Rebecca Traister argues at New York magazine.)
It would be naive to think that the weight of this history has been lifted by a few decades of rapid social progress on feminism. Women are still blamed for sexual assaults committed against them, and they are still blamed for bringing down the promising careers of beloved men. Male victims face similar problems because sexual assault, and the dismissal of it, has been so strongly gendered for so long — and sex stereotypes of women can also be used as weapons against men.
Women are blamed because they have nearly always been considered, legally and socially, to be worth less than men. They are satellites to male stars, auxiliaries, not full people in their own right. It's easier to discount their stories because it's easier to discount them as people. It's no longer socially acceptable to say that kind of thing out loud, but implicit assumptions take a lot longer to evolve than appearances do.
Race can complicate the picture, especially when it comes to Cosby
Survivors have historically had little legal recourse against the men who rape them — but specifically white men. In the days of slavery, black women had no rights to their own bodies whatsoever, and white women were more likely to be believed about rape if the alleged perpetrator was a black man.
This dynamic may be one reason Cosby's defenders are saying the things they are. In addition to laughing at the idea that women might take 30 years or more to report a rape, Eddie Griffin claimed that there is "a systematic effort to destroy every black male entertainer’s image." Rapper Waka Flocka Flame tweeted his belief that the allegations against Cosby were "an organized lie" designed to keep a famous black man down:
Every time a famous minority make it they throw salt in the game— Waka Flocka (@WakaFlocka) January 1, 2016
But a lie organized by whom? At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates lamented this tendency of some black people to defend Cosby based on his race. "So strong is the power of the legitimizing narrative, that even those who are victims of these violent fictions are rarely deterred from crafting justifying fictions of their own," Coates writes. "There is no real difference in claiming that a woman in a married man’s hotel room forgoes the right to her body, and asserting that a black boy wearing a hoodie forgoes the right to his. Brutality is brutality, and it always rests on a bed of lies."
This brutality is often visited especially hard on women of color, who experience disproportionately high levels of sexual assault — including at the hands of police.
Lonnae O'Neal wrote for the Washington Post that the Cosby indictment was painfully complex for many black women: Cosby broke important cultural ground for black Americans, and his success can feel personal to many. Yet intraracial loyalties in the face of oppression have also kept many black women from speaking out against their own sexual assaults at the hands of black men. Believing women was seen as optional, and too costly an option to actually exercise.
Most of us believe deep down that women can't be trusted
There are some understandable reasons why law enforcement officials, for instance, tend not to believe victims who come forward about rape. We are only just beginning to understand the science of how the brain processes trauma. Memories are stored in a fragmented way, and emotional reactions can seem "off." Both of these things can raise suspicions among police officers who are accustomed to using rigorous interrogations to ferret out inconsistencies in a story, and rigorous interrogation only makes things worse.
But there's clearly something deeper going on when a police department calls its sex crimes investigative division the "lying bitch unit," and law enforcement officials aren't the only ones who don't believe rape victims. Too often, entire communities turn against survivors of sexual assault who come forward.
The idea that women are inherently deceitful, especially when it comes to sexuality, is deeply rooted in our culture. Soraya Chemaly has written extensively about the ways we teach our children that women are liars. Our pop culture and religious teachings alike are fraught with descriptions of women as untrustworthy — from Eve and the apple to Gossip Girl. Teenagers and police officers alike radically overestimate the number of women who lie about rape. This has real consequences in nearly every walk of life, Chemaly writes:
Women's credibility is questioned in the workplace, in courts, in legislatures, by law enforcement, in doctors' offices and in our political system. People don't trust women... not to be bosses, pilots, employees. Last year, a survey of managers in the United States revealed that they overwhelmingly don't believe women who request flextime. Until relatively recently, in order to hedge against the idea that women lie, many U.S. police departments had "corroboration requirements" for rape reports, unlike any other crime. Pakistan's controversial Hudood Ordinance still requires a female rape victim to procure four male witnesses to her rape or risk prosecution for adultery.
Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas wrote about how the Cosby situation made him realize that he didn't truly trust his wife, and that most men don't trust women. He said he trusts her not to cheat and to be a good partner, and he trusts her opinions on important things:
But you know what I don’t really trust? What I’ve never actually trusted with any women I’ve been with? Her feelings.
If she approaches me pissed about something, my first reaction is "What’s wrong?"
My typical second reaction? Before she even gets the opportunity to tell me what’s wrong? "She’s probably overreacting."
Female hysteria is another deeply rooted gender stereotype, and it tells us that women can't even be trusted to know their own feelings. These stereotypes cause doctors to ignore women's symptoms of pain, and they inspire lawmakers to pass abortion waiting periods because they don't think women consider their decision carefully enough. Meanwhile, men are perceived as smarter and more authoritative than women.
Our society, which is less separable than we'd like from the cruder societies that came before it, has created a perfect storm of reasons to dismiss rape victims. A woman can't be trusted to know her own feelings, which means she either secretly wanted sex while saying she didn't, or wanted it at the time but changed her mind afterward. A woman isn't her own person, not really, so it matters less that believing him means disbelieving her. A woman can't be trusted not to lie anyway, so it's safer to disbelieve her than to risk ruining some innocent fellow's life. Men are the ones with money, social status, and something to lose, so they are the real stakeholders in any rape case.
Rape is horrifying and messy, and sometimes it's easier to disbelieve that it happens at all. But that option isn't open to victims of rape and sexual assault. Denying rape means believing that victims are lying. It means denying their humanity and worth. And it's a denial that has been made far too easy by thousands of years of habit.