Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.
In this week’s New York cover story, 35 of Cosby’s accusers state their names, show their faces, and tell their stories. These are women from different walks of life—from supermodels to bartenders—whose tales of abuse are both painfully specific and horrifyingly familiar when placed next to each other. Even if statutes of limitations make it so that Cosby likely won’t ever be tried in court, even if you believe that every story has two sides, the article makes the question of whether Cosby preyed upon women seem almost crass. Without a full public confession from the star, nothing is certain, but at this point, it’d take a leap of logic to argue that public opinion should presume Cosby is innocent.
And yet the power of the article also, for me at least, breeds a sort of morbid curiosity. The kind of curiosity that makes you do that thing you should never do on the Internet when dealing with matters of rape and gender and celebrity—read the comments. Sure enough, below stories referencing the article and on social media, sprinkled amid the outpouring of sympathy for the alleged victims and disgust for their alleged attacker are the few, the proud members of Team Cosby. Or at least, Team “Forget These Women.” The team that uses phrases like “media whores.” The team that includes people saying things like, “I know what I have seen of girl in the club/party scene and I am skeptical of all these stories,” and that, with bizarre fervor, insults the accusers’ appearances. The team that, most commonly, says if the woman were telling the truth they would have spoken up long ago. The sentiments typically go beyond pointing out that Cosby hasn’t been convicted in court; they paint a whole group of people at immoral, reckless, opportunistic.
Yes, it’s a bad idea to use the ugliest comments and social-media statements as gauges of public opinion. Yes, by responding to trolls, you amplify them. And yes, the overwhelming response to the New York story has, rightly, been concern for the women and scorn for Cosby. Still, it bears noting: Every semi-anonymous Internet user attacking the accusers is a symbol of why Cosby may have acted with impunity for so long, and of one more thing he may have cost each of these women.
The long Cosby saga is in large part about expectations—the belief held by many of the alleged victims that they’d be doubted and condemned if they went public. “I could have walked down any street of Manhattan at any time and said, ‘I’m being raped and drugged by Bill Cosby,’ but who the hell would have believed me?” Barbara Bowman recalls in the New York story. Another accuser, Lise-Lotte Lublin, says her husband counseled her, “No, I don’t want anybody to know, we don’t want to expose you, I don’t want people saying bad things.”
Those expectations of backlash made the pursuit of justice into a cost/benefit calculation, with costs that went beyond career concerns: Once they spoke out, these women’s entire lives would become matters of public debate. They would become targets. They would surrender their privacy. This has, again and again, proven to be the case for victims of abuse, especially those who don’t have an opportunity to prove their claims in court—one more degradation after the original one.
Now, even as so many of Cosby’s accusers have banded together, even after seemingly incriminating admissions from the man himself have been made public, and even with evolving cultural views on rape and victims’ rights, the prophecies are being fulfilled yet again: There are people who think less of these women for telling their stories. Which, of course, is part of why it took so long for some of them to do so, and why it’s so significant now that they have.