Even though more than 50 women have come forward accusing Bill Cosby of drugging, raping and sexual assaulting them, 41 per cent of Americans feel ambivalent about whether or not Cosby was a rapist, according to a 2015 survey. A decade before the survey, in a 2005 deposition, Cosby admitted he had seven prescriptions for Quaaludes, a sedative and hypnotic medication, which he gave to women he had sex with. Yet public scepticism remains. This scepticism is detrimental to victims of rape, making it hard to expect a conviction, especially when the accused encompasses success, fame and a faucet of charisma.
In 1984, Bill Cosby starred and produced a show that held the number one rating in America for five years: The Cosby Show. Cosby played the role of a loving husband and father of five. It was this role that earned him the recognition of the comedic, quintessential all-American family man. This image was even supported by Keshia Knight, who played his daughter on the show. In a 2015 US Weekly article, Knight said, “All I can speak to is the man that I know and I love. The fact that he’s been such an example, you can’t take away from the great that he has done.” Hannibal Buress, a famous male comedian called out Bill Cosby for his alleged sex crimes during a 2014 stand up routine. “I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom. Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby.” The routine went viral and many of Cosby’s alleged victims began coming forward and people started to listen.
In the decades prior to Buress’s routine, six women had publically come forward with sexual assault accusations against Cosby, and few people took them seriously. Comedian Tina Fey also made reference to Cosby’s rape allegations in 2005 on SNL and again in 2009 on 30 Rock. Yet neither of her comedic segments stirred public sentiment.
Allegations against Cosby date as far back as 1965 but the majority of the alleged victims didn’t come out until Buress’s routine. This is not surprising as we saw the same thing unfold with the case of Jian Ghomeshi, his alleged sexual harassment claims date back to 2003, but it wasn’t until the allegations became public in 2014 that more women started to come forward. According to Rape Abuse and National Incest (RAINN), out of every 100 rapes only 46 per cent are reported to the police. Of those reported, only 12 will result in an arrest, nine will be prosecuted, five will lead to a felony conviction and only three per cent will spend a single day in prison. RAINN also suggests rapists tend to be serial offenders and credits this to the fact that 97 per cent of rapists walk free.
Cosby hasn’t served a day in jail since the start of the allegations. Due to the statute of limitation, a law that forbids prosecutors from charging someone with a crime committed more than a specified number of years ago, many of the victims have missed the window to file charges. And those who have come forward within the timeframe lack physical evidence. Cosby has not only declined to answer questions surrounding the allegations but has implied that the sex acts were consensual.
Cosby’s fans seem to believe him. For example, the “We Stand with Cosby” Facebook group dismisses the allegations but even after the release of the deposition in which Cosby admits to giving the woman drugs and having sex with them, but people posting to the facebook group are adamant that the allegations are still false. The perception we have of Cosby’s innocence stems from his image of America’s number one dad, a semblance that was carefully crafted and orchestrated by Cosby himself.
“Cosby won my trust as a 17-year-old aspiring actress in 1985, brainwashed me into viewing him as a father figure, and then assaulted me multiple times,” says Barbra Bowman, one of the alleged victims. The public image of the benign all-American TV Dad Heathcliff Huxtable made Cosby an implausible sexual perpetrator even to the people closest to him: his own victims.
Here in Canada, former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi is awaiting trail for seven counts of sexual assault. In a Toronto Life article, Ghomeshi has been described as “a charming, narcissist who desperately wanted to be adored”. The writer says he now has “a small circle of admirers who either believe his innocence or have forgiven his sins”. The two stories are eerily similar. It is the charisma and fame that keeps these men innocent in the eyes of the public.