How many women is enough?
That’s one of the biggest questions looming as Bill Cosby stands trial for sexual assault a second time, after a mistrial in June 2017.
Cosby has been accused of sexual misconduct by around 60 women, some of whom began speaking publicly as far back as 2005. He did not face serious career repercussions until 2014 and has yet to serve any prison time. The prosecution is calling five additional women in the retrial to bolster the claims of Andrea Constand, who says Cosby assaulted her in 2004.
One of the early goals of the #MeToo movement was to draw attention to the ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault. As waves of stories appeared in the news and on social media, numerous women often came forward with reports against each powerful man. From a collective perspective, it was a victory — the first women to speak out helped others feel safe doing so. But while the movement has forced the public to pay attention to choruses of women speaking up together, it hasn’t yet done the same for women who speak on their own.
Whether or not Cosby is convicted this time around, the fact that the prosecution feels the need to call five women in addition to Constand is a sign that one woman’s voice does not equal one man’s. Even with a heightened awareness around sexual harassment and assault, one thing hasn’t changed: The American public is willing to ignore the words of one or even several women when they speak out against a high-profile man.
Even in today’s #MeToo era, reports by one or two women are often brushed aside
Rumors about producer Harvey Weinstein’s behavior with women swirled for years, but he faced few repercussions until Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published a story in the New York Times documenting reports of sexual misconduct by Weinstein against at least eight women, including actress Ashley Judd. A few days later, Weinstein was fired from the production company he co-founded — and the initial reports helped paved the way for other women to come forward about their experiences with Weinstein and other powerful men.
Former Sen. Al Franken, meanwhile, didn’t face widespread calls to resign from his fellow senators until the number of women accusing him of inappropriate touching or other misconduct reached seven. Many Americans, including some in Congress, opposed his resignation — for some, even seven accusers wasn’t enough.
Perhaps the best example of how easy it is for the public to ignore a single accuser, though, is Ryan Seacrest. Suzie Hardy, a former stylist for Seacrest at E! News, says that he subjected her to sexual misconduct for years, including pressing his penis against her and grabbing her genitals. Hardy has not wavered in her account, filing a police report and writing in the Hollywood Reporter in March, “I’m not going away.”
But Seacrest is still hosting two shows and appears to have faced little career damage. In part, as Vox’s Caroline Framke writes, that’s because an investigation commissioned by NBCUniversal, E!’s parent company, found “insufficient evidence” to support Hardy’s claims (though Hardy says investigators failed to interview several potential witnesses). But it doesn’t help that Hardy is on her own.
As Framke writes, she is “one woman without any name recognition alleging that one of Hollywood’s most well-connected men abused her for years. Even with Variety reporting her story in more depth, and Hollywood being more on guard about sexual misconduct stories than ever since the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke in October, she was always fighting an uphill battle.”
Sometimes, even multiple accusers don’t seem to have an effect. Singer R. Kelly has been accused of abusing multiple women and girls, including one who says she met him when she was 15, outside his child pornography trial. He is currently on a major national tour.
And, of course, there’s President Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women and has yet to face consequences, although a lawsuit by one of the women, Summer Zervos, could change that. Some men, it seems, are so powerful that even the testimony of many women can’t bring them down.
Women have been speaking out about Bill Cosby for years. It took a man to make the allegations stick.
For a long time, Bill Cosby was one of those untouchable powerful men. Cosby is on trial this week in connection with a report by former Temple University employee Andrea Constand that he drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2004. Soon after that, other women began to come forward with their own reports about sexual misconduct by Cosby. But it took a decade, and a routine from a male comedian, to make the accusations stick.
Constand first reported the incident to police in 2005, but authorities declined to prosecute. When she sued, 13 women with similar allegations against Cosby agreed to appear as witnesses; some also reported publicly that Cosby had subjected them to sexual misconduct. Cosby denied some of the allegations publicly, and for years, the women received little media or public attention.
Then in 2014, a man spoke out: A routine by comedian Hannibal Buress, calling out Cosby over women’s reports against him, went viral. Soon after, artist Barbara Bowman wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that Cosby had drugged and raped her in the 1980s. “Only after a man, Hannibal Buress, called Bill Cosby a rapist in a comedy act last month did the public outcry begin in earnest,” Bowman wrote.
Other women soon began to come forward. In late 2014, TV networks began pulling projects associated with Cosby, and the Navy revoked his title of honorary chief petty officer; he resigned from Temple University’s board of trustees. In July 2015, 35 women with reports against Cosby appeared on the cover of New York magazine. In December of that year, prosecutors charged Cosby with aggravated indecent assault in the Constand case.
At the trial, in 2017, one of Cosby’s attorneys tried to cast doubt on Constand by painting aspects of her encounter with Cosby as romantic. “You were sitting by the fire. The room was dark. There was a nice mood,” she said at one point. The prosecution was allowed to call only one other Cosby accuser, Kelly Johnson, who said Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted her in 1996. The jury deliberated for six days and was unable to reach a verdict.
This time, the prosecution is calling five more accusers. The first, Heidi Thomas, began her testimony on Tuesday, saying that Cosby offered to mentor her and then tried to force her into oral sex. As Vox’s Jen Kirby points out, Thomas and the other women who testify “will speak against the backdrop of a national conversation about the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault.” In this context, maybe the second trial will have a different outcome from the first. But even if it does, the increased visibility of #MeToo hasn’t changed the fundamental truth that it can take dozens of women to bring down consequences on one man.
What’s the impact of five women’s voices? We’re about to find out.
Practically speaking, additional reports of similar crimes can be helpful for prosecutors — as Kirby points out, evidence of a pattern of behavior by the defendant is admissible in court under Pennsylvania law.
It’s also true that allegations of sexual misconduct sometimes involve no more concrete evidence than one person’s word against another’s, and where that’s the case, it’s not surprising that multiple accusers matter. Outside of the courtroom, it’s helpful for future employers and the public to know if someone has a pattern of sexual misconduct or harassment, particularly if the individual incidents aren’t prosecuted.
But looking for corroboration before taking legal or employment action is different from refusing, as a society, to countenance the possibility that a powerful man might be a predator until we hear it from dozens of women. It’s different from ignoring the reports of young female athletes until they’re forced to form a veritable “army of survivors.” It’s different from letting allegations by women slide until they’re repeated by a man.
Where we are as a society is far, far from the scenario imagined by #MeToo critics who fear the directive to “believe women” will lead us to accept allegations uncritically. We are still in a place where women who speak out against powerful men are guilty until proven innocent — guilty of craving fame, money, or attention, until two or 10 or 59 other women stand up to help exonerate them.
Beginning last week, Andrea Constand was joined in court, for the first time, by multiple other women telling versions of the same story. We’re about to find out if it’s enough.