08/07/2015

A sorrowful sisterhood

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Thirty-five women are photographed; their eyes directed towards the camera, addressing the viewer with a stern conviction. We do not know many of them — their faces are new to us — yet seeing them all together brings chills to the delicate areas near your neck; and makes you writhe in your seat, uncomfortable. Seeing all of them like that, sitting individually, but placed side-by-side, created one of the strongest magazine covers of the year, featured in last month’s issue of New York magazine. These are the women who have spoken up against comedian Bill Cosby, recalling their personal stories of assault, and finally putting their foot down on decades-long stories of abuse. The last seat is left empty — we do not know how many more of them are still out there.

Their testimonies are harrowing. Many of them recall incidents they experienced when they were younger — when they were in their early twenties, or in their teens. Some of them were journalists and writers; others were aspiring models and singers. Some of them were strangers he met at a place where he ate — at the donut shop, or at his restaurant. And still others were people he knew for years, people he called his friends.

Most of their stories will begin the same way: Cosby would invite them to dinner, or to watch his show. He would find a way to isolate them — take them up to his hotel room, or corner them in his dressing room, or take them back to his house. He would offer them a drink.

The women would accept. Sometimes, he would outright offer them a pill or two, to “make them feel better,” he said. The women would take this as well (it becomes difficult to say no in certain situations, such as being alone in a room with a person of stature like Bill Cosby. He was trusted).

And then the stories spike at the same turning point — the women would feel woozy, and then black out, and wake up the next day completely clueless and confused. Others would wake up to a naked Cosby standing above them. Former America’s Next Top Model judge Janice Dickenson recalls blacking out, and waking up with semen between her legs. Others remember, in hazy spurts, forcefully being penetrated.

Barbara Bowman, who was 17 years old at the time of her alleged assault, was a model and aspiring actress bent on starting a career; Cosby offered his mentorship. Over the course of two years, Cosby would continuously drug her and rape her without her knowledge. She just recalls some moments as “very confusing,” others as very clear. It would take her a long time to realize that their relationship was abusive. “It was a predatory grooming process that was very subtle and very manipulative. He was America’s favorite dad,” says Bowman who was assaulted from 1985-1987.

What New York magazine puts into perspective in this story is a complex case of abuse, one in which the accused is someone who holds a position of power.

If your allegation against a rapist begins in a posh suite with one of America’s most loved TV dads, and the night you spend together involves a nice dinner, a conversation and a glass of wine — it doesn’t look much like rape at first blush. But this is where the women stand their ground — abuse doesn’t have to happen in a dark alley, by a stranger, with a knife to your throat. Abuse can happen even with the people you come to respect. People you know. (It usually does, in fact.)

In fact, abuse happens even when you admittedly place yourself in such a vulnerable situation. What’s interesting about these stories is that the 35 women have been honest about the possibility that they put themselves in those situations in the first place: they did take that drink from Cosby. They did take that first round of shots. They did accept his invitation to be in a hotel room with him, alone. They did take the pills that would “calm them down,” as Cosby put it.

But just because you take that sip from a drink from the stranger at the bar — doesn’t make the assault “consensual” when the choice is not yours to make. How is the act consensual when a person is rendered unconscious?

Drinks shouldn’t be drugged, and drugs shouldn’t have been pushed in the first place, and acceptances to invitations to spend time alone with a man shouldn’t be understood as you-have-the-permission-to-do-to-me-as-you-please.

Deceit is what stinks the most in the Bill Cosby case, through the stories of these women — a really well-played, sickening type of trickery that has actually convinced these woman to stay quiet about their abuse for years. But now they are speaking up, having found solace in each other, in knowing that they were not alone, that it was not actually their fault.

The New York magazine ends its story referring to the odd bond the women have made as a “sisterhood of sorrow.” They are lucky that, in number, they grow courageous to rise up for vindication. But what we want is not just to end the story by lionizing these women for their courage. We have to fight until the one man they are all speaking against finally falls from his pedestal. Because until Cosby is called out as guilty, people will continue to believe that this type of behavior is okay, that a portion of the responsibility of the abuse should be carried by the women, because they sort of “allowed it to happen.”

But it shouldn’t be, and it is not okay. And landing on the cover of a magazine to share their stories is a huge leap — but it’s not yet the end.

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