The Cost of Accusing Bill Cosby

The women who faced the comedian in court this week faced a shocking array of attacks on their stories and their characters.

Lili Bernard, foreground, is consoled by Caroline Heldman, left, as Victoria Valentino, right, is comforted outside the courtroom after Bill Cosby was found guilty in his sexual assault retrial. Both Bernard and Valentino have accused Cosby of assault. (Mark Makela / AP)

In 2005, Bill Cosby was interviewed by the National Enquirer about accusations—in part—that he’d drugged and sexually assaulted a woman in 1970. He didn’t deny anything. But he raised the prospect of how damaging such allegations could be for the people closest to him. “Who really wants to put his or her family in a position of information coming out publicly that will cause great emotional stress, challenge?” he said. “The choices that the family, friends have made in looking at him or her as a good person, a wonderful person, a person to be trusted?”

Who indeed? On Tuesday, during closing arguments for the defense in a retrial of a criminal-assault case against Cosby, his attorney Kathleen Bliss had something to say about the six women who’d appeared in court to testify that Cosby had assaulted them. Bliss likened the cavalcade of voices against Cosby to “witch hunts, lynching, and McCarthyism.” She called Janice Dickinson a “failed starlet” and “an aged-out model” who’d likely “slept with every single man on the planet.” She implied that Heidi Thomas had made up her allegations about Cosby to get the attention. Andrea Constand, the woman whose accusations against Cosby were being tried in court, was described by defense attorneys as a “pathological liar” and a “con artist” whose sole intention in coming forward was to milk more money from the TV star.

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.”

In the Cosby case, the criticisms leveled at the six women who claimed in court that the comedian had assaulted them were part of a pattern. Dickinson, Bliss claimed, was sexually promiscuous and pathetic; Thomas was a deluded fantasist hungry for fame; Constand was a professional extortionist out for a payday. Many people might interpret the remarkable chorus of voices against Cosby—which have included more than 60 separate women—as substantial evidence of his guilt. Bliss presented it as mass hysteria, McCarthyism, a witch hunt. It’s not coincidental that these are the same exact words that have been used to describe the #MeToo movement by people who see it as a threat. It’s notable that, this time, they failed. Constand and Cosby’s other accusers spoke out, and they got justice. But it’s important to remember they didn’t do so without cost.