What Bill Cosby and the University of Virginia Can Teach Us

As accusations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby mount, students, faculty and staff of the University of Virginia, meanwhile, are adding their names to a petition addressed to the college’s president, demanding that campus organizations be held accountable for sexual violence. Both cases have gained a significant amount of media attention recently for allegations that have persisted for decades. A joke reignited accusations against Cosby that span from the mid 1960s to 2004. A campus investigation by Rolling Stone exposes a culture of silence and inaction around sexual assaults on UVA’s campus that date back at least 30 years. From Hollywood green rooms to frat house bedrooms, sexual violence is widespread and normalized in American culture. These high profile cases reveal how power, privilege and patriarchy work in tandem to uphold rape culture, which is defined as “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women.”

While UVA is not part of the “Ivy League,” the elite institution commands a comparable endowment and attracts prestigious students. “Prestige is at the core of UVA’s identity,” Sabrina Erdely observes in her Rolling Stone piece. “Although a public school, its grounds of red-brick, white-columned buildings designed by founder Thomas Jefferson radiate old-money privilege, footnoted by the graffiti of UVA’s many secret societies, whose insignias are neatly painted everywhere.” For students and alumni alike, UVA holds the status of a sacred American institution. To expose the university’s rape culture, for some, is tantamount to treason.

Bill Cosby is an institution in his own right. He has been regarded as “America’s dad.” He has also wielded enough power and influence to make or break careers. Most of the women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault recall being young and hopeful protégés of the seasoned actor and writer. Having Cosby as a mentor would jumpstart their stardom, they thought. As a recent piece in The Washington Post puts it, “They didn’t see a comedian. They saw the ‘king of the world.’” It is that same power, Cosby’s accusers allege, that kept many of them silent. “I was convinced no one would listen to me,” Barbara Bowman admits. “That feeling of futility is what ultimately kept me from going to the police.”

“No one would believe me” is far too common a refrain in sexual assault cases. Because the burden of proof rests on alleged rape victims, every word they speak and action they take after their assault—and their entire history leading up to it—is subject to scrutiny. We expect women who speak out about rape to be perfect victims and unassailable witnesses. Cosby’s legal team, friends and supporters question his accusers’ reluctance to speak out sooner or, in some cases, their decisions to accept money from him. They weigh the credibility of former models, actresses and a Playboy bunny against a man who popularized chunky sweaters and Jell-O pudding pops. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of these women have been reluctant to make their stories public.

In a similar way, young women at UVA spar with a legacy when they speak out against campus assaults. Fraternities like Phi Kappa Psi trace their lineage to a U.S. president, senators, businessmen and celebrated actors. Young women who report their assailants subject themselves to being re-traumatized by having their integrity questioned, being labeled as sluts, outcasts or traitors, or sometimes, as was the case with “Jackie,” being subjected to more violence. The truth is there are no perfect witnesses but even if there were, our culture of celebrity and old-school “tradition” teaches us to place more faith in powerful icons and institutions than in the testimonies of women.

What’s perhaps most shocking to me about Cosby and UVA is the way the cases betray the “ordinariness” of sexual violence in American culture. Drugging freshman girls and/or plying them with liquor at campus parties too often becomes a part of “orientation.” Many of these girls will be raped in their first six weeks of college. At UVA and on numerous other college campuses, binge drinking and hard partying serve as a cover-up for sexually predatory behavior. Some fellow students and even administrators would rather victims chalk their assaults up to a “bad night” than for their schools to earn a bad reputation for rape.

Hollywood’s custom of mixing drugs, sex and alcohol has also helped to conceal sexual assaults. Bowman, Joan Tarshis, and several other women claim that Cosby gave them pills or spiked their drinks before assaulting them. Their accounts echo accusations that have been made against Roman Polanski, Bryan Singer, and Cee-Lo Green, among other influential entertainers. The consistency of these accounts affirms the long-suspected prevalence of sexual abuse in Hollywood, generally by men in power. The number of onlookers, bystanders and handlers that turn a blind eye to these events says even more about a tolerance of sexual exploitation that Hollywood has cultivated.

This past weekend, Saturday Night Live comedian Michael Che included as part of his Weekend Update a dressing-down of Bill Cosby: “Pull your damn pants up,” the comedian chided. Che’s remark reprised Hannibal Buress’ joke, which turned on Cosby’s lectures to poor black people to “pull their pants up” and raise their kids better. Cosby’s moralizing conveniently elided his own payoffs to a woman claiming to be his child fathered outside of his marriage. The same year he delivered his “pound cake speech,” Andrea Constand alleges Cosby drugged and raped her in his Philadelphia home.

UVA prides itself on its honor code but that sense of honor hasn’t extended to victims of sexual assault. As Rolling Stone‘s Erdely notes, “Since 1998, 183 students have been expelled for honor-code violations such as cheating on exams. And yet paradoxically, not a single student at UVA has ever been expelled for sexual assault.”

The suspension of Cosby’s new projects and of UVA’s fraternities might gesture toward new levels of accountability that have been, at least in part, attributable to social media. At the same time, social media, like our culture at large, is privy to forgetfulness (remember #bringbackourgirls?). When the media frenzy around Cosby and the watchful eyes trained toward UVA return to “business as usual,” will our indifference change? Or will another celebrity or another campus exposé show how inured so many have become to sexual violence against women?

Photo courtesy of The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Jennifer D. Williams is an assistant professor of English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her research and teaching interests include 20th and 21st century African American literature and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, particularly in relation to space, race and class.