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Human Rights

No Justice in Cosby Mistrial: Another Stark Reminder that Rape Culture Hasn’t Been Conquered Yet

Cosby's rape case reminds us how entrenched rape myths are.

Bill Cosby Mural, Washington, DC, on the side of Ben's Chili Bowl.
Photo Credit: Ted Eytan / Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday morning, the judge in the rape case for Bill Cosby, who was standing trial for charges of raping Andrea Constand in 2004, declared a mistrial. The jury of seven men and five women in the Norristown, Pennsylvania, courtroom could not reach a verdict after six days of deliberation.

Both the news and entertainment media reported that Cosby’s lawyers barely seemed to offer a defense, calling only one witness and presenting little in the way of evidence. Instead, Cosby’s lawyer Brian McMonagle offered an hour and a half of closing statements that leaned heavily on the assumption that the jurors, at least some of them anyway, would buy into the myth that women just make up rape after the fact because they don’t want to admit “responsibility,” either for having sex or even just putting themselves in this situation.

As soon as I heard that, I feared that the defense was right. People don’t need evidence. They just need to harbor a set of tightly held misogynist assumptions — that women are liars, that female sexuality is shameful, that women’s bodies don’t really belong to them anyway — and luckily for lawyers defending accused rapists, those happen to be the prevailing beliefs of our sexist culture, even if feminists have had some luck fighting back in recent years.

The worst part is about this is that it’s unlikely that the recalcitrant jurors even think Constand, or the dozens of women with similar stories about Cosby, is lying about either the drugging or the fact that she didn’t really consent to the sex. McMonagle didn’t bother to argue that Constand wanted sex. Instead, he argued that she should have known that sex was what Cosby wanted,  and that she should have known that her opinion on how her body is used matters less than what a man wants, especially when that man is rich and famous.

This assumption that women don’t really have bodily autonomy is widespread in our culture, which is why it’s so hard to get people to understand why rape is always wrong. Opposition to legal abortion hinges on the assumption that a woman who chooses to have sex for pleasure forfeits her right to bodily autonomy, which is why there are so often exceptions for health or rape built into abortion restrictions. Women see their clothing choices, food choices, and even body shapes policed in a way men would never put up with. Walking out of the home often means, for women, having to tolerate men invading our space with unwanted comments and propositions, and women who complain are sneered at for supposedly being “snowflakes.” The tradition of fathers “giving away” their daughters in marriage at weddings persists as well.

In a million little ways, society signals to women that our bodies are not ours, and that we do not have the right to complain if someone else uses our bodies in ways we do not consent to. That’s why rape accusers are called “liars.” It’s not that people think they’re making up what happened; it’s that people refuse to believe the woman actually thought she had the right to control her own body in the first place.

Hell, we’re a country that elected a man president after it was revealed that he bragged, on tape, about how he likes to grab non-consenting women “by the pussy.” We clearly don’t see women’s bodies as belonging to them.

As distressing as this trial’s outcome is, however, I would still caution readers not to despair. Ugly attitudes about rape and women’s rights have been entrenched for millennia, and it will take a long time to uproot them, especially as people who hold these views are intent on passing them along to the next generations. That said, the fact that there was a trial in the first place shows how far we’ve come in just the past few decades. That at least some of the jurors were unwilling to let Cosby walk also shows progress.

The reason women kept walking away, year after year, decade after decade, from encounters with Cosby feeling hurt and violated and helpless to do anything about it is that for most of that time, the idea that a woman’s consent is necessary for sex had very little traction with the public at large. These women believed, correctly, that if they came forward and tried to press charges, they’d be laughed out of police departments — at best. They might also face the loss of work or the destruction of their reputations, as so many rape accusers get smeared as slutty liars.

After decades of feminists pushing the message that consent is necessary for sex — and without consent, it’s rape — it seems that there was enough room in the public discourse to give these rape accusers fair hearing. That’s a change, a big one. It’s a huge victory that can be built upon.

If anything, the reason this case is such a big disappointment is that it contrasts so much with the approach that the mainstream media took to the Cosby case in recent years. The accusers were treated with respect and given their dignity. Instead of trotting out rape myths to discredit them, most journalists and other mainstream media figures analyzed and debunked rape myths. It felt like the tide had really shifted around this issue and things were getting better. And they were!

That shift may have hoodwinked many of us into thinking that the change in media coverage of rape accusations had resulted in a similar sea change in public thinking. That hope has been dashed, and we’ve been delivered a strong reminder that ordinary Americans won’t be pried off long-held beliefs about sex and gender so easily. Most people who believe rape myths will go to their graves believing those rape myths.

But maybe the younger generations won’t believe them as much. And maybe, over time, the improved media coverage and responsibility around this issue will slowly shift public attitudes on this issue. This case’s mere existence is a good step in the right direction. We have many more steps to take, of course, but we are on the way.

And hey, that it took so long to deliberate shows that at least some jurors weren’t convinced that there’s wiggle room on the issue of what makes a rape a rape. So that’s progress.

 

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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