In 2006, a woman publicly accused one of the most famous and beloved men in America of raping her two decades earlier. Her story lingered at the fringes, fitfully reported. Soon enough, it went away altogether.
Two weeks ago, the same woman, Barbara Bowman, repeated the story about Bill Cosby she told in 2006. This time, the news media’s reaction was wholly different. The story triggered an explosion of coverage, which led other women to emerge with (or retell) similar stories, which led to even more coverage.
Nothing changed in the details of Bowman’s story between 2006 and Nov. 13, when her first-person essay was published on PostEverything, a commentary section of The Washington Post Web site. But something else seems to have changed during that time: the news media’s willingness to report on allegations of rape.
Once reluctant to document uncorroborated claims of sexual violence, the news media has reshaped its approach — and rapidly.
Rape allegations are more likely to be covered in the media and to be treated with greater nuance and deference when they are, say people who follow the issue.
The retelling of the Cosby story was preceded a few weeks earlier by a swirl of sexual-battery allegations made by at least three women against Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian radio personality with a following in the United States. Ghomeshi was fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. just before a story in the Toronto Star reported that Ghomeshi had punched, slapped or choked women without their consent during sexual encounters. Ghomeshi dismissed the allegations as merely “adventurous forms of sex” and sued the CBC. (He withdrew his suit for wrongful termination Tuesday; the CBC said they reached a settlement.)
Last week, Rolling Stone published an extraordinary investigation into an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party in 2012. The story included hair-raising details about the alleged crime, although it didn’t name the alleged victim, the accused or any witnesses. Nevertheless, like Bowman’s story, it ignited a media firestorm, which led U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan to suspend all fraternity activity at the school until January.
Each of these cases was widely reported before any criminal charges had been filed — or even while a police investigation was ongoing. News organizations have traditionally been reluctant to report claims of criminal behavior in the absence of legal action. The stakes were considered particularly high in reporting sexual misconduct: A wayward allegation can cause permanent damage to the accused’s reputation and invite legal action.
But that may have been then.
“I think there has been some change,” said Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women, Action and the Media, a nonprofit group that seeks gender justice in media portrayals. “You still see some victim-blaming coverage. . . . But I see a lot more credible, credulous coverage [of sexual violence issues] in a lot of mainstream places.”
Friedman and others credit social media with revolutionizing the way the mainstream media approaches issues involving rape. “There’s a lot more pushback [from the public] when the media gets it wrong,” she said. “Media outlets just can’t ignore it” when their approach is criticized on Twitter or Facebook. “Social media gives people the tools to do that, and we didn’t have that until very recently.”
In fact, some say the virtual nonreaction to Bowman’s claims in 2006 might have been very different had social media been around to propel them far and wide. Emma Carmichael, the editor in chief of Jezebel, a women’s Web site, mentions Anita Hill, who accused then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. “I can’t imagine that [a woman making the same claim] in 2014 would be put on trial like Anita Hill was,” Carmichael said.
Jezebel last week broke the story of the alleged rapes of three Oklahoma high-school girls by a boy who was their former classmate. The families of the girls say they were hounded out of the school by classmates who taunted them about the alleged rapes.
“There is a general willingness to take rape allegations more seriously now,” Carmichael said. “There’s more willingness to listen and allow for complexity in what happened.”
Some of the credit for this goes to feminist activists and bloggers who’ve changed the cultural “myths” and even the language surrounding sexual violence, said Jessica Valenti, a columnist for the Guardian and co-author (with Friedman) of “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.” Formerly academic concepts such as “rape culture,” “victim blaming” and “slut shaming” are mainstream now; rape victims are now described in media accounts as “survivors.”
Valenti isn’t ready to pat the media on the back, however; she notes that some media accounts focus on the alleged victim’s behavior rather than the alleged perpetrator’s. She cited a 2011 story in the New York Times about an alleged gang rape in Texas in which the alleged victim, an 11-year-old girl, was described as dressing “older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.”
By contrast, such innuendo was more widespread when basketball star Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault in 2003. News stories and columns raised questions about his accuser that repeated “a lot of the mythology” about rape, Friedman said, such as that she was “asking for it” by going to his hotel room or that she was a “gold digger” seeking a payoff.
“The media acted as if she was the one on trial,” she said. “I think the coverage would be very, very different today.” (The criminal case against Bryant was dropped in 2004 after his accuser declined to testify; her civil suit was settled out of court.)
Bowman’s essay on The Post Web site this month was highly unusual, and it may suggest how much times have changed, if only in the news media.
Although the newspaper’s reporters had investigated the sexual conduct of public officials before, most notably President Bill Clinton’s, this was the first time it had allowed an accuser to write a first-person essay lodging a felony accusation against another person.
The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, said that Bowman’s piece did not make new allegations against Cosby. The claims have been raised “publicly and repeatedly” in other media outlets, he said, such as in People magazine in 2006. They arose again in February, when Newsweek published a Q&A with Bowman. What’s more, he said, the point of Bowman’s essay was that Cosby’s alleged behavior hadn’t been taken seriously until it was raised by a man, comedian Hannibal Buress, whose stand-up routine in which he talked about the allegations went viral last month.
“Bowman felt that the willingness of people to ignore her said something disturbing about how sexual assault allegations like hers are received in society, particularly when celebrities are involved,” Baron said.
In interviews, several journalism-school professors were surprised by The Post’s decision to run Bowman’s essay without presenting evidence that it had corroborated her claims. (The Post did corroborate certain details of her account.) Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, called the publication of the essay “risky and unusual,” while the University of Minnesota’s journalism-school dean, Jane E. Kirtley, said, “I may be old-fashioned, but to me, an attack piece cries out for some independent verification.”
But the story generated a new wave of coverage of the Cosby allegations and new alleged victims emerged. In less than a decade, Bowman’s story went from little-noticed to major news. And few, if any, media outlets ignored the news.
When I was 17 years old, one day after the series finale of The Cosby Show, a 15-year-old black girl named Annie Glover* talked to me about sexual violence at Donnie G’s* party. I listened.
Then she asked me to talk back.
Donnie didn’t drink our entire senior year because he wanted a basketball scholarship. I lied and told Donnie that I wasn’t drinking for the same reason.
Before Donnie’s party, Donnie and I bought two 40-ounces of St. Ides, poured out the malt liquor and filled both empty bottles with apple juice. We checked each other’s noses for floating boogers, checked our breath for that dragon and stuffed our mouths with green Now & Laters. When Donnie’s doorbell rang, we stumbled around the house, whispering Jodeci lyrics inches under the earlobes of girls who didn’t run from us.
About three hours into Donnie’s party, Annie Glover, a friend of Donnie’s sister, asked me to follow her into one of the bedrooms. I walked in the dark room behind Annie Glover loud-rapping Phife’s “Scenario” verse. Once we were both in the room, I complimented Annie Glover on her hair I couldn’t see and asked her where she got the perfume I couldn’t smell. I turned on the light. Annie Glover just sat on the edge of Donnie’s bed, her fists filled with the comforter, her eyes staring towards the window. I wondered how drunk she was.
“You, you look like Theo Huxtable tonight,” I remember Annie Glover stuttering as she got up and turned the light off.
I was a sweaty, baldheaded, 6’1, 240-pound black boy from Jackson, Mississippi. I owned one pair of jeans (some fake Girbauds that were actually my Mama’s) and one decent sweatshirt. Nothing about me looked, moved or sounded like Theo Huxtable.
When Annie Glover asked me if I wanted to see her boobs, I ignored her question, assumed she was definitely drunk, and tried to tell her what I hated about The Cosby Show. The sweaters, the corny kids, the problems that weren’t problems, the smooth jazz, the manufactured cleanliness, the nonexistent poverty residue just didn’t do it for me. It wasn’t only that the Cosbys were never broke, or in need of money, or that none of their black family members and friends were ever in material need of anything important: it was the complete lack of structural, interpersonal or psychological violence in the world that Bill Cosby created. Only in science fiction could a black man doctor who delivered mostly white babies, and a black woman lawyer who worked at a white law firm, come home and never once talk mess about the heartbreaking, violent machinations of white folks at both of their jobs, and the harassing, low down, predictable advances of men at Claire’s office. I remember telling Annie Glover that never in the history of real black folks could black life as depicted on The Cosby Show ever exist. And it only existed on Cosby’s show because Bill Cosby seemed obsessed with how white folks watched black folks watch ourselves watch him.
I didn’t exactly say it that way, though.
“Bill Cosby and them be lying too much,” is what I said. “You think it’s because white folks be watching?”
“Why you still watch that show?” Annie Glover asked me. “A Different World is way better.”
When I got ready to ask her why Denise wasn’t on the show anymore, Annie Glover asked me again if I wanted to see her boobs.
Of course, I wanted to see Annie Glover’s boobs. Or, of course I wanted Annie Glover to think I wanted to see her boobs. Or, of course I wanted to know that Annie Glover wanted me to see her boobs. When I fake yawned and coughed, Annie Glover stood up and asked if I had any more Now & Laters. After I handed her what was left of the pack, she asked if I was really drunk. Before I could lie, Annie Glover told me that she wasn’t drunk either.
Annie Glover sat on the floor with her back pressed against my knees and made me promise not to tell anyone what she was about to tell me.
Thirty minutes later, when Annie Glover stopped talking, she also stopped digging her fingers into Donnie’s nappy carpet. “You know what I’m trying to say?” she finally asked and stood in front of the bed. “I feel like I’m dying sometimes.”
I said I understood, even though I didn’t understand why she was saying any of it to me.
“You gone say something?” I remember her asking. “Go ahead. You know you can talk, right?”
I wanted to tell Annie Glover that when I was younger, a few miles from where we were, I got drunk off this box wine Mama kept in the house. I drank until I was numb because it helped me feel better about what was being done to my lips, nipples, neck, penis, thighs, and head by two older folks I trusted. It felt so scary. I felt so stuck. It all felt like love, too, until it didn’t. Then it felt like dying.
But I didn’t say any of that. I told Annie Glover thank you for talking to me. I told her I wouldn’t tell my boys anything she told me if she didn’t tell her girls I was acting drunk.
* * * *
When accusations of Cosby’s alleged sexual violence toward women became public, I thought about my conversation with Annie Glover. I wondered if she remembered the night as I did, and if she knew she was the first person to ask me to talk with her about experiences with sexual violence.
As far as Cosby’s alleged abuses, I was never conflicted. My only question was would this nation care if all, or most, of Cosby’s alleged victims were black women and girls. There wasn’t much intellectual or emotional reconciliation needed for me to understand that white Americans will go to all lengths to justify their terrorizing and pilfering of black folks, and most black men and boys, like most white men and boys, will go to all lengths to deny our active roles in sexual violence, sexual assault, sexual humiliation, and interpersonal violations of women and girls. The reality that white Americans are responsible for some of the most lasting, crazy-making violence on Earth does nothing to negate the reality that black men and boys, like white men and boys, are formally and informally educated by other men, boys, and patriarchal structures, to unrepentantly harm and sexually violate black women and girls.
I believe that’s true of Bill Cosby. I believe that’s true of Daniel Holdzclaw. I believe that’s true of way too many of our uncles and nephews.
And I know that’s true of me.
I’ve felt like a special black man these past two years for never thinking about drugging a woman, never initiating sex with a woman who had anything to drink, and not knowing what a Quaalude was. Every time I’ve seen Cosby’s droopy face, or his name in a headline, I’ve shaken my head, sucked my teeth, whispered “this nigga again” and sketched a not so fine line between the alleged sexual violence of a monster like Cosby and the lies and emotional abusiveness of a special black man like me.
I’m wondering today, though, if making Bill Cosby the face, and really the mascot, of rape and sexual violence in this nation, without reckoning with our own experiences with sexual violence, abuse and gendered deception, makes sexual violence, and other forms of emotional abuse more pervasive. I don’t at all buy the hollow notion that the Cosby mess is a manufactured spectacle distracting us from the systemic racial terror faced by black folks in this country. I do, however, know that many of us who identify as black men, regardless of our sexuality, have allowed the Cosby spectacle to further distract us from really reckoning with our textured experiences and investments in different forms of sexual violence.
The United States has a violence problem, of which sexual violence is a part. This nation is actually excellent at being abusive. That is not a critique; it is wholly descriptive. No American institution prepares us to reckon with our investments in violence and abuse. Not our government. Not our schools. Not our churches. Not our families. Not our traditional heroes. These institutions cradle violence, encouraging different forms of abuse while gleefully moving between innocence, ignorance and intransigence.
So of course, I am a citizen of a violent country, a student of violent schools, a believer in a violent church, and a child of a violent family. This, just as much as my brittle destructive American masculinity, is what connects me to Bill Cosby.
There are millions of ways to be sexually violent. Incapacitating partners with Quaaludes and raping them is one way. Acting incapacitated and unable to understand consent is another. Obsessively lying to a partner, limiting their access to informed choice and consent is another. As vile and monstrous as Bill Cosby might be, I’m more interested in confronting formal and informal violent practices of the nation that created Bill Cosby, Bill Cosby defenders, Bill Cosby accusers and me.
Calling out Cosby and his enablers is important, but it, in and of itself, is not the work of justice. Of course, revelatory, narrative-changing American justice is impossible without honesty. But honesty isn’t the end of justice work. Getting comprehensive sexual violence curriculum, and well-paid, superbly trained educators and counselors in our schools, churches and jobs to address the nexus between sexual violence, gender construction and racial terror might be part of the work. Committing to not just valuing consent with partners, but willing ourselves to have hard, loving conversations with friends and partners about where we’ve been sexually, where we hope to go, and the roles that violence has played in our history, might be part of the work. Making sure that survivors of sexual, domestic and interpersonal violence living in poverty have healthy, free alternative places to stay and heal when home is bloody and emotionally destructive might be part of the work, too.
Writing that paragraph, or this piece, does not make me any less prone to violence and abuse. The bar is so low for men and boys, regardless of sexuality, that even just trying to do this work, just offering up these constructed public revelations of who we’ve been, makes us feel like we’re flying. Or like we’ve flown.
We ain’t flying.
Like the current batch of presidential candidates, who finally found the answers in the back of the book, and now manage to sound out “pri-son re-form” “ra-cial dis-par-i-ty” “struc-tur-al rac-i-sm” with no accounting for the work they’ve all put in to the violent devaluing of black lives, black men like us have to accept that saying “intersectionality” or “misogynoir” or “black woman magic” or not saying “the B word” in poems, essays, Facebook posts, tweets and conversations is not the work of justice.
We ain’t flown.
* * * *
The night that Annie Glover talked with me, I walked out of Donnie’s room the same way I walked in: loudly rapping Phife’s “Scenario” verse, with a turned up 40 in one hand and cupped testicles in the other. Annie Glover rolled her eyes at me, shook her head, and turned left down the hall.
I turned right.
When Donnie asked me if I had sex with Annie Glover, I smirked and said, “Fool, what you think?” I remember feeling really good about myself because I technically didn’t lie to Donnie, and technically didn’t touch Annie Glover so I didn’t technically cheat on my girlfriend, the only girl I’d ever kissed. I proudly wore my raggedy patchwork of innocence, ignorance and intransigence that night like that fake-ass Gordon Gartrell shirt Denise Huxtable made for Theo.
Like most kids at Donnie’s party, I knew that black children generally, and black girls specifically were molested, stalked, sexually assaulted and raped by friends, strangers, and parents who were never held responsible. We all knew. In the quiet rooms of our community I had to sit and listen to hundreds of talks from hundreds of different black men and black women, telling me “no black hoodies in wrong neighborhoods, no jogging at night, hands in plain sight at all times in public, no intimate relationships with white women, never drive over the speed limit or do those rolling stops at stop signs, always speak the king’s English in the presence of white folks, never get outperformed in school or in public by white students and most importantly, always remember that no matter what, white folks will do anything to get you.”
I never heard the words “sexual violence” or “violent sex” or “sexual abuse” from one family member, one teacher or one preacher. And I’ve never heard the words “sexual violence” or “violent sex” or “sexual abuse” from Bill Cosby.
Bill Cosby, the comedic master of “the talk” made a career talking at us about how to be good black students, how to be clean black children, and how to appropriately pay for pound cake. For slivers of better, and mounds of worse, we listened to whatever Bill Cosby said. He could have used his experience to talk to us about his relationships with his sexual violence and abuse. He could have talked to us about the education he got around issues of gendered violence as a child. But Bill Cosby, like most of the famous cis-gendered American men we pay way too much attention to, was a complicated, monetarily generous coward, afraid to give his audience a chance to love, hate or disregard where and who he’d really been.
What’s most terrifying though, is not that Bill Cosby refused to speak honestly about his investment in sexual violence; it’s that if Bill Cosby, or Bill Clinton, or Bill O’Reilly ever really talked honestly about their relationships to sexual violence, deception and abuse, their talks would matter so much more to most men and boys than the talks, and experiences of Annie Glover, and the millions of women and girls who have told us in so many different ways we are a maniacally violent country filled with violent men and boys clinging to an innocence that never existed, an abusive ignorance that would rather talk about privilege than power, and a woeful intransigence that makes reckoning with our abuses absolutely impossible.
Decades ago, James Baldwin wrote, “Love is a battle, love is war: love is growing up.”
I don’t think love is obsessively hurting human beings in ways they would never hurt us, then acting incredulous when they tell us they’re hurt. I don’t think any part of love is making people with less power than us feel like they’re dying.
That is abuse. We are abusing people. We can stop.
We ain’t flying.
*Names have been changed for reasons of privacy.