Bill Cosby Scandal Suggests We Still Don’t Take Sexual Assault Seriously Enough

It took accusations of hypocrisy — not allegations of assault — to turn the issue into a real scandal.

Bill Cosby (via Shutterstock)

Bill Cosby (via Shutterstock)

Folks: If Bill Cosby, as has been alleged, sexually assaulted dozens of women, it would be wrong because sexually assaulting women is wrong. It wouldn’t be wrong because he hypocritically began preaching to black people about how to behave.

This seems obvious on the surface — at least, it should — but the way the scandal has played out suggests otherwise. The major developments in the story have largely been driven by outrage over Cosby’s hypocrisy more than by the allegations themselves.

Consider Hannibal Buress, whose show at the Trocadero last fall unleashed the current wave of anger and publicity over Cosby’s past. Here’s the joke he told:

“It’s even worse because Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man persona that I hate,” Buress said. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the 80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”

Consider, too, the opinion of the judge who unsealed parts of a decade-old lawsuit against Cosby last week, revealing to the world that Cosby had admitted in a deposition purchasing Quaaludes to give to women he wanted to have sex with. The news was a bombshell, a turning point — and it happened because the judge saw Cosby as having an apparent “do as I say, not as I’ve done” approach to instructing people how to live their lives.

“The defendant has donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, child-rearing, family life, education, and crime.” Judge Eduardo C. Robreno wrote: “To the extent that Defendant has freely entered the public square and ‘thrust himself into the vortex of [these public issues],’ he has voluntarily narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim.”

That opinion stems from the so-called “pound cake” speech Cosby gave in 2004, in which he challenged and chastised African-Americans:

People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else, and I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, ‘If you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.’ Not ‘You’re going to get your butt kicked.’ No. ‘You’re going to embarrass your family.’

So, if not for the “pound cake” speech, Buress might not have had a joke to make last October at the Trocadero. Without the speech, perhaps Robreno would likely have left Cosby’s testimony sealed. Without pound cake, maybe Cosby would still be cavorting around on Jimmy Fallon, still welcome on Netflix and maybe even a TV star once again, the accusations* against him a dimly remembered part of his legacy. After all, the allegations had long been in the public domain long before any of his latest projects was under way.

(*And they’re still just accusations. Cosby has never faced criminal charges and has denied all allegations, although there are now several civil lawsuits outstanding.)

That’s discomfiting. Because hypocrisy isn’t the real (alleged) sin here — it’s just frosting on the cake of the real problem: The alleged sexual assaults.

When the scandal blew up anew last fall, one of Cosby’s accusers wrote a column in the Washington Post asking why it took Buress’ joke to call attention to accusations that had been publicly known about for years.

While I am grateful for the new attention to Cosby’s crimes, I must ask my own questions: Why wasn’t I believed? Why didn’t I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it? Why was I, a victim of sexual assault, further wronged by victim blaming when I came forward? The women victimized by Bill Cosby have been talking about his crimes for more than a decade. Why didn’t our stories go viral?

It took a man to call attention to the cases, she concluded. And, it seems, it took the element of hypocrisy to make them meaningful to many people. That suggests we still don’t take sexual crimes seriously enough.

So it bears repeating: Sexual assault is wrong. It’s wrong all by itself. And if somebody famous and powerful is accused of sexual assault, those claims deserve to be examined quite apart of the question of whether that person is a hypocrite or not. In the cause of women’s safety, it appears we still have a long way to go.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.