Bill Cosby Is Now On A Mission To Position Accused Rapists As Victims
Lawyers for Bill Cosby announced on an Alabama TV show Thursday that their client planned to conduct seminars on sexual assault to help men and women avoid false allegations. “This is bigger than Bill Cosby — the issue can affect young persons and they need to know what they’re facing,” said Andrew Wyatt, one of Cosby’s attorneys. A second lawyer, Ebonee Benson said, “People need to be educated about a brush against the shoulder — anything can be considered sexual assault.”
This focus on false allegations perpetuates dangerous myths about sexual violence and discourages reporting. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, rates of false reports are somewhere between two and ten percent. False reports do happen, but they are rare, not a national epidemic. Failure to report sexual violence, however, is. Of 1,000 sexual assaults, only 344 are reported to police. Only a small fraction of these reports ever result in criminal chargers and prison time for the perpetrator.
Research indicates that one of the most common reasons victims do not report incidents of sexual violence to police is because they are afraid they will not be believed. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold-medalist and CEO of Champion Women, said, “When someone reports a crime, they typically don’t worry that their life will be ruined and that they won’t be believed. Not true with rape.”
Bill Cosby and his lawyers appear to be on a mission to position perpetrators as a victims, shifting the compassion and concern from people who have experienced sexual violence and instead framing them perpetrators of slander. Public dialogue about the aftermath of sexual violence should focus on supporting victims in their quest for healing and justice, not protecting society from the scurrilous allegations of victims who are suffering both physically and emotionally in the aftermath of crime.
Highly-publicized reports of false allegations — such as “Jackie” who in 2014 lied about being raped at a University of Virginia fraternity party and Crystal Mangum who lied about being raped by the Duke lacrosse team in 2006 — show the devastating impact false reports can have on the accused. Unfortunately, these cases are often used to discredit actual rape victims and amplify rhetoric harmful to rape victims.
Cosby’s concern about false allegations is widespread and does not need a champion. Even youth sports organizations, such as USA Swimming, provide training material for coaches on ways to avoid false allegations of sexual misconduct, describing young athletes as attention-needy people who may “hang on your every word, watch your every mood, and crave your attention.”
A disproportionate fear of false allegations has harmed both victims and entire communities. Sara Reedy was charged with false reporting after she claimed to have been raped at a service station near Pittsburgh. Later, after another victim of the same rapist came forward, she was vindicated. Even when victims aren’t charged with false reports, they are often accused of lying about their experiences. ProPublica reported a strikingly similar story of a woman, “Marie,” who was charged with false reporting. It turned out she had indeed been the victim of a serial rapist.
In 2014, Steve Penny, CEO of USA Gymnastics cited the possibility of false allegations as a reason for not pursuing reports of sexual abuse in his organization. In a deposition, he testified:
And one of the most important reasons that you substantiate a claim is because the potential for, if you will allow the expression, a witch hunt, becomes very real. And so it’s possible that someone may make a claim like this because they don’t like someone or they heard a rumor or because they received information through other third parties.
Penny’s fear of witch hunts resulted in the continued sexual abuse of gymnasts. His belief of an overstated risk of false allegation endangered the athletes of USA Gymnastics as he failed to act on reports of sexual misconduct and crime by coaches. Penny’s attitude is common.
The attitude Cosby plans to promote at his seminars will amplify victims’ fear of not being believed. Since many rapists are repeat offenders, communities are safer when victims feel comfortable reporting and do not need to face re-victimization in the form of character assassination in the aftermath of crime. Until victims feel comfortable reporting, it is important that attitudes and rhetoric about sexual violence make communities more comfortable for victims than it is for their perpetrators.