During Bliss’s closing argument, as she went through her laundry list of character attacks on woman after woman and then took a moment to praise Cosby’s “sweet voice,” Cosby reportedly smiled.
The fact that Cosby was found guilty represents a major milestone for women in the #MeToo era. As my colleague Megan Garber wrote yesterday, famous men who are accused of sexual assault have historically enjoyed impunity and forgiveness, including Roman Polanski, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Donald Trump. But in many ways, the most recent Cosby trial was representative of what happens every time a sexual-assault case goes to trial, whether the defendant is famous or not. “Testifying in court is the most traumatic experience for a rape victim other than the rape itself,” the journalist Helen Benedict wrote in her 1992 book Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes. Twenty-six years later, nothing has changed.
Earlier this year, a case in Northern Ireland in which a woman accused two Ulster rugby players of gang rape went to court. During the trial, defense attorneys stated that the woman—who was 19 at the time—was a willing participant in the sexual encounter who was “teasing” the men. Her blood-stained underwear was displayed for the whole court to see. She was accused of requesting emergency contraception not out of a genuine concern that she might be pregnant, but to portray herself as a “classic rape victim.” After a nine-week trial, the men were acquitted.
When sexual-assault survivors testify during rape trials, they’re asked what they were wearing that night. How much they had to drink. Why they didn’t report their assault sooner. Why they’d previously or subsequently communicated with their rapist. Defense attorneys routinely paint accusers as being sexually promiscuous, or as somehow culpable for what happened to them, or as willing participants in their assaults. In 2016, a woman accusing four Vanderbilt football players of rape read a letter about her experiences in court. “What happened to me that night has been compounded by the live-streaming, tweeting, and international dissemination of every detail of how I was degraded and humiliated for all posterity,” she said, in between sobs.
That same year, a different letter read by a woman accusing a Stanford swimmer of sexual assault went viral. The woman listed a variety of questions she was asked during the trial: “How old are you? How much do you weigh? What did you eat that day? Well what did you have for dinner? Who made dinner? Did you drink with dinner? No, not even water? When did you drink? How much did you drink? What container did you drink out of? Who gave you the drink? How much do you usually drink? Who dropped you off at this party? At what time? But where exactly? What were you wearing? Why were you going to this party? What’d you do when you got there? Are you sure you did that? But what time did you do that? What does this text mean? Who were you texting? When did you urinate? Where did you urinate? With whom did you urinate outside? Was your phone on silent when your sister called? Do you remember silencing it? Really because on page 53 I’d like to point out that you said it was set to ring. Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? When did you start dating? Would you ever cheat? Do you have a history of cheating? What do you mean when you said you wanted to reward him? Do you remember what time you woke up? Were you wearing your cardigan? What color was your cardigan? Do you remember any more from that night? No? Okay, well, we’ll let Brock fill it in.”