In 2018, disgraced comedian Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in jail and incarcerated for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand — one of 60 women who accused him of doing so. Upon hearing the news about his conviction, another survivor of Cosby’s assault, Victoria Valentino, told the Associated Press that “this is a great day for women and a great day for rape survivors.” Lili Bernard, who had also accused Cosby of abuse, told the AP she hoped his sentence would “send a message to other powerful perpetrators that they will be caught and punished.” But after serving just three years in prison, Cosby, who admitted to giving unsuspecting women quaaludes over the span of 40 years, was set free on June 30 due to a legal technicality.
Constand publicly addressed the 83-year-old’s overturned case in a statement and reportedly said what many survivors and others who work with survivors may have been thinking: “Today’s majority decision regarding Bill Cosby is not only disappointing but of concern in that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the assailant or may force a victim to choose between filing either a criminal or civil action.”
Constand’s worries are supported by 2010 data from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVR), who published that nearly 41 percent of women reported being raped by an acquaintance and that between 2017 to 2018, the percentage of women who reported their abuse to law enforcement dropped from 40 percent to 25 percent. NSVR research also shows that only two to 10 percent of women make false reports. Additional unsettling documentation comes from RAINN, which published that the majority of perpetrators will not face jail time. Furthermore, when the survivor is Black, the data shows that the victim is even less likely to be believed than her white counterparts. To have 60 women accuse Cosby of sexual assault then see him freed, has many asking what this will mean for anyone who has been or may be a survivor of sexual abuse in the future.
Outraged, But Not Surprised
Despite Phylicia Rashad, Stephanie Mills and others celebrating Cosby’s overturned conviction, advocates who work with survivors say they are outraged at his release, but not surprised by the system that allowed this to happen. If anything, there was surprise that he was ever convicted. “In this case, it was monumental for the 60 women who had come forward to say what had happened to them,” said Dani Ayers, Chief Executive Officer of me too. International. “It is unique in that it’s so rare for anyone to ever get convicted and that it happens to someone who has a household name.”
TIME’S UP’s Chief Operating Officer Monifa Bandele agreed with Ayers and noted the celebrity power and financial means that Cosby had at his disposal to continuously appeal. “I don’t often see these types of things happen, because typically, the majority of people interacting with the criminal legal system don’t have the power and the resources of a Bill Cosby,” Bandele said. “What we know historically is that the criminal legal system rarely delivers any real level of accountability or justice for impacted people, especially survivors of sexual violence. From Cosby’s ruling, survivors are yet again hearing the message that they don’t matter.”
To be clear, the country has seen the overturning of high-profile sexual violence cases before, but not three years after the accused was sentenced. The Exonerated Five, for example, who gained national attention with the Central Park jogger case and again, with Ava DuVernay’s four-part Netflix series “When They See Us,” were teenagers when they were railroaded and falsely accused. These young men also spent five to 12 years in prison. Bandele noted that when sexual assault cases have been overturned, it’s usually because of DNA or forensic evidence, which was the case for the Exonerated Five.
“In a courtroom, a confession — whether true or false — is likely to seal your fate,” the men wrote in a January 2021 New York Times op-ed.
For Bandele, who has worked on criminal justice for two decades against police violence, it’s unmemorable that a Black man was released from prison so quickly. “We know with Bill Cosby, through his own admission, through transcripts from his own testimony, that he drugged and raped women, but he is in a position where he’s able to create deals and do payoffs and things that other people, whether guilty or innocent, cannot,” Bandele said.
Holding Powerful Men Accountable
What is memorable is that when Anita Hill testified against her former boss, Clarence Thomas, during his Supreme Court judge confirmation hearings in 1991, for sexually harassing her and others at work, she was publicly humiliated for speaking out and was accused of orchestrating a “high-tech lynching” by Thomas. Despite Hill’s accusation, Thomas won his nomination and lifetime placement with a 52-48 vote. Thomas enjoyed support from a large percentage of Black folks, the Chicago Tribune reported in 1991, just as Cosby is also receiving support from fellow Black celebrities and others in the Black community.
Although Hill didn’t readily gain support from the public or the legal system, her testimony was not in vain. From 1990 to 1991 after her assertions, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received a 71 percent increase of sexual harassment cases from women, according to the Chicago Tribune. In 1992, the year after Hill’s statement, the EEOC reportedly received 10,500 reports. This number jumped to more than 15,000 in 1997, according to EEOC data. Today, the culture has undoubtedly shifted, thanks to Hill and others, including men who are involved with organizations like Men Stopping Violence and the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. This shows that many will now push back against a sexually violent culture. But to what end if their perpetrators won’t be properly convicted?
When Racism and Sexism Collide
Quentin Walcott, Executive Co-Director of the violence prevention nonprofit, CONNECT, in New York City, has spent the last 25 years engaging men and boys of color around gender violence prevention and acknowledged the complexities of the Cosby case within the Black community. “We hold workshop roundtables with Black and Latino men and we were talking about Cosby and how racism trumps sexism in a sense, and that continues to negate the experiences of survivors, particularly women of color who experience violence from men of color,” said Walcott.
Walcott further explains, “Cosby is important to the culture because of his support for HBCUs, but we can also be critical to the culture of how our women are abused and silenced in so many different ways.” He continued by affirming that, “We also have to grapple with the idea that racism exists in these situations, and also sexism. Usually when we think about racism, we think about this attack on Black men, which exists, but then we negate the fact that racism is also about violence against women and girls.”
Because of the legal loophole that Cosby’s lawyer was able to exploit — that Cosby should have never been tried by a Pennsylvania district attorney for his bold admission of guilt because they reneged on a promise to not charge him — the remorseless Cosby is free and cannot be retried. Just as Ayers said, this is a dangerous situation for women.
“I have eight years and nine months left,” Cosby told Black Press USA, in a 2019 prison interview. “When I come up for parole, they’re not going to hear me say that I have remorse. I was there. I don’t care what group of people come along and talk about this when they weren’t there. They don’t know.”
Moving forward, Ayers said that while Cosby’s overturned verdict illuminates the U.S. legal system’s flaws, it’s also an opportunity for the Black community to have difficult — but necessary - conversations. “I have been urging our Black community to think about those women who came forward, inside of a criminal justice system that devalues their opinion, disrespects them and disbelieves them, what this experience must be like for them,” Ayers said. “If you’re a Black man, for your mother, for your sister, who bravely came forward, to have this man be released, it’s horrifying and dangerous. We need to be able to hold that truth alongside of the history that Black men have been accused of sexual violence against white women historically, wrongfully and still say that this man did terrible things to these women, and should be held accountable.”
N. Jamiyla Chisholm manages creative content at Barnard College and is the author of the upcoming memoir “The Community.” As a journalist, she focuses on culture, gender and sexuality, and history.