WOMEN

The Way Bill Cosby's Lawyer Talks About Assault Is Peak Rape Culture

Victim-blaming is alive and well.

In a 52-minute interview on July 31, Bill Cosby's lawyer Monique Pressley continuously dismissed the more than 40 women who have come forward with allegations against 78-year-old.  "Either you get your day in court or you move on," Pressley told HuffPost Live host Marc Lamont-Hill.

Pressley is media-trained; she's poised and she deftly side-stepped Lamont-Hill's most damning questions. But her (sanitized, well-planned) comments offered chilling insight into the way rape culture works. They also brought into sharp relief our collective desire to assume the worst of women who "tarnish" the image of our cultural heroes. 

In light of her comments, here are five things we need to clear up:

The court of law is not the same as the court of public opinion.

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"I believe that people are innocent until they're proven guilty. And if you can't prove them guilty in court through prosecution, then you don't get the option of persecution instead," said Pressley.

Bill Cosby will most likely never see the inside of a jail cell -- and the public has no power to circumvent his liberty with opinions. But we, the public, get to make judgments based on the plethora of information we have at our disposal. 

When more than 40 women come forward with stories that are consistent, in a society that systematically shames victims of sexual abuse, it is our right as private citizens to operate on the assumption that their words do have credibility -- at least as much credibility as his.

The New Inquiry's Aaron Bady wrote about the refrain of "innocent until proven guilty" as it relates to sexual assault cases and the court of public opinion. His words, pegged to accusations made against Woody Allen, hold true for Cosby as well: "His presumption of innocence can only be built on the presumption that her words have no credibility." Saying Cosby isn't a liar implies that all of the women who have made accusations against him are.

There are real reasons that women come forward decades after a sexual assault occurs.

Fear of retribution, fear of not being believed, fear of having to continuously relive a trauma, to name a few. 

Pressley took issue that Cosby's alleged victims were coming forward "10, 20, 30, 40 years later." She also expressed skepticism about why, if their claims were real, they wouldn't speak out right after the incidents occurred: "There's not any testimony or any accusation from any of these women that Mr. Cosby bound them, gagged them, prevented them from coming forward and saying whatever their truth was at the time," she told Lamont-Hill.

But when you consider the emotional trauma and scrutiny women often face when they come forward and the difficulty of proving definitively that an assault took place, is it really all that surprising these women stayed silent until their voices reached a critical mass? Plus, as Cosby accuser Therese Serignese told me in November, in the '60s and '70s, date rape "wasn't even a word,"

There are no "benefits" to making up a false allegation of assault.  

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"They earn themselves a seat in a chair on the front of a magazine. They get interviewed over and over," said Pressley -- as though the promise of "fame" could explain why dozens of women came forward to recall painful, violating memories in a public forum. When people dream of "fame," does anyone really think that being  (in)famous as a victim of sexual assault is the goal?

Spoiler alert: Going public with a sexual assault accusation isn't super fun! For the vast majority of victims who come forward, the only real incentive is the vague promise of potential "justice." And when you are accusing a powerful public figure of sexual assault -- especially one who has served as a cultural "father figure" for millions of Americans -- you can bet that you'll also be facing online harassment and the disbelief of people who can't conceive that their hero could also being a rapist.

Sometimes, victims maintain cordial -- or even friendly -- relationships with the person who has sexually assaulted them. That does not act as evidence that the assault didn't occur.

During the HuffPost Live interview, Pressley reminded Lamont-Hill that Beverly Johnson's former manager claimed that the model fabricated her claims against Cosby. "That's a prime example of a situation where a longtime manager of Ms. Johnson came forward to various media outlets and said, 'Hmm, I was around during the time of this action and Ms. Johnson had nothing but positive things to say about Bill and Camille Cosby,'" she said. 

But the truth is that victims react to sexual assault in a variety of ways, and health professionals stress that there is no "correct" reaction. We often look for "perfect victims" to bolster narratives of assault -- women who react in the "right" way, do the "right" thing afterwards, have the "right" evidence. In reality, "perfect victims" don't exist. 

Victim-blaming is alive and well.

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Pressley said the term victim-blaming is just "a hashtag" that exemplifies "the prevailing way that we label things." Her comments prove just how easy it is to craft a narrative where victims are at fault for what happened to them.

"Women have responsibility. We have responsibility for our bodies, we have responsibility for our decisions. We have responsibility for the way we conduct ourselves," said Pressley.

Later, she asked: "How many women and men have been willing to offer up their bodies on a casting couch? Have been willing to exchange sex for favors? Have had remorse after doing so and then accused someone who they believed they could get monetary gain out of and sell a story?"

These "many women and men" Pressley references seem more like figments of imagination created by a culture that tries its very hardest not to believe the stories of victims of sexual assault, than archetypes rooted in truth.

Here is the truth: Rape is severely underreported in the United States, which means that victims are far, far, far more likely to bury an incident and suffer silently than they are to speak out about it. Hollywood has a long, storied history of "male scumbags," who have used their privileged positions to exploit less powerful women.

"What I am doing is asking people to focus on facts," said Pressley. Looking at the facts, I'm inclined to think that Cosby isn't some miraculous exception -- he's the rule.

Head over to HuffPost Live to watch the full interview with Pressley.

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The Women Who Have Accused Bill Cosby Of Sexual Assault
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