“I feel like I’m dreaming, can you pinch me?” Lili Bernard, one of the more than 60 women to have publicly accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, told MSNBC through tears outside the Pennsylvania courthouse where the comedian was found guilty on three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand on Thursday. “I feel like my faith in humanity is restored.”
After facing public accusations of sexual assault for 18 years ― allegations that spanned five decades ― an actor and comedian who was previously thought to be untouchable learned there would be legal consequences for his actions. And with that verdict, a message was sent to survivors across the nation: Justice, even when the deck is stacked against you, even when you’ve been belittled, discredited and ignored for years, is still possible. Not certain, but at least possible.
Many online were quick to connect the guilty verdict to the Me Too movement, which began in earnest last October, just four months after a jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on the Cosby charges and the judge declared a mistrial.
And certainly, things feel different in April 2018 than they did in June 2017. Over the last seven months, the nation has engaged in a long, nuanced and difficult conversation about sexual assault, harassment and the abuse of power. Dozens of powerful men have lost their jobs over allegations of assault and harassment. And now two, Larry Nassar and Bill Cosby, have been found guilty in courts of law.
“There has been a change in the world, and more people believe women’s stories today,” said Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “More people understand why the trauma of these events might lead to some period of time passing before individuals are willing to stand up and say, ‘This happened to me.’ And more people understand that individuals we like and admire have the capacity to do terrible things.”
It certainly feels as if something has shifted. But by how much? And for how long? And can this one guilty verdict even be connected to other sexual assault cases ― especially given the unique aspects of the Cosby case? (For example, Cosby had already essentially admitted to all of the elements of the crimes for which he was standing trial. In a 2005 deposition, Cosby said he had given Benadryl pills to Constand without telling her what they were, and had digitally penetrated her and sucked on her breast, though he maintained the encounter was consensual.)
“This is a victory ... not just for the 62 of us publicly known survivors of Bill Cosby’s drug-facilitated sexual crimes against women, but it’s also a victory for all sexual assault survivors, female and male. It’s a victory for womanhood.”
Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, cautioned against drawing a direct line between Me Too and this or any verdict. “It’s not like Me Too brought the verdict, and the verdict’s gonna buoy Me Too,” she said. “Those jurors arrived at the verdict based on the legal instructions they were given to interpret the evidence they were shown.”
And yet maybe there were hints in the verdict of a changing moral climate. Houser pointed out that this jury was not duped by the myths about rape culture and women that are often used to win sexual assault cases. Cosby’s defense team painted Constand as a “con artist” out for “money, money and lots more money.”
“You’re dealing with a pathological liar, members of the jury,” Cosby lawyer Tom Mesereau declared during the defense’s closing argument. “You are.”
The defense returned to a decades-old playbook, but this time the results were new.
The jurors’ “ability to not let the truth be obscured by the age-old lies, that’s something that should bolster faith in [the Me Too] movement,” Houser told HuffPost.
The Cosby verdict doesn’t mean other men will face justice in the courtroom. It doesn’t mean other women won’t be called liars or money-grubbing opportunists when they seek justice. It doesn’t mean that the work of Me Too is done ― not even close. But it might give hope and energy to survivors and activists who do the difficult, often painful work of trying to create a world where victims’ voices are valued instead of being written off.
As Bernard put it: “This is a victory ... not just for the victim in the case, Andrea Constand, not just for the 62 of us publicly known survivors of Bill Cosby’s drug-facilitated sexual crimes against women, but it’s also a victory for all sexual assault survivors, female and male. It’s a victory for womanhood.”
After the verdict came down on Thursday, I looked up at the TV. Instead of seeing image after image of Cosby, the perpetrator, the cameras were now focused on the women, his victims. The story had finally become about them. Too often we focus on the Very Bad Men, the heights from which they’ve fallen, the depths from which we have already decided they will climb, that we forget to check in with the people they harmed ― the people whose careers and lives were derailed, who risked public ridicule to come forward and speak about their experiences.
When the allegations against Cosby first resurfaced and then snowballed in late 2014, Therese Serignese contacted HuffPost through Facebook. She wanted to talk about how Cosby had drugged and raped her in 1976. She wanted to tell her story publicly for the first time.
When I asked why she had come forward so many years later, her answer was simple: “I just wanted someone to hear me.” On Thursday, she was not only heard but heeded.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.