In the past week, Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Lee Pryor joined the growing number of celebrities to publicly speak out about the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. From Jay Leno to Roseanne Barr, the message from famous people has been resounding in its support for the now more than 30 women who have accused Cosby of rape.
Every public condemnation of sexual violence is admirable, yet all the celebrities who have supported the accusers have something important in common: they aren’t close to Cosby and they don’t love him as a friend, mentor or family member.
Pryor has bad experiences with Cosby that go back decades. I imagine it’s easier for her to believe he’s a rapist than it is for someone like Phylicia Rashad, who played Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, who loves and respects him.
The nuanced and heartfelt comments made by Samuel L. Jackson and other celebrities are a stark and painful contrast to the public statements Rashad made earlier this year. Despite the numbers of women who continue to come forward and the similar patterns of abuse they describe, Rashad was dismissive. Her interview with ABC is one of the most tense, defensive exchanges with a reporter I’ve ever seen. In it she characterized the allegations against Cosby not only as false, but as a deliberate and orchestrated attack on his legacy. Cosby is kind and generous, she said, as if having those traits make it impossible for someone to rape.
Yet every day, powerful, charismatic, otherwise kind people sexually abuse. And every day this leaves people who love and respect them in a painful position. Do they acknowledge the possibility that someone important to them is capable of rape? Or do they, as Rashad and Camille Cosby, Bill’s wife, did, try to discredit the accusers?
I know I would experience shock and disbelief if someone I loved and respected was accused of rape. It would be harder to believe if I had only seen this person’s positive qualities.
Some people who sexually abuse are wonderful parents, great mentors and effective leaders. Nobody can say with certainty how or why people who are capable of greatness are also capable of the level of dehumanization it takes to commit the most intimate acts of violence. We know a bit about what researchers call risk and protective factors—personal characteristics and life experiences that are correlated with higher or lower rates of perpetration. We know some about what types of interventions have the potential to reduce rapes.
But we don’t really have an answer to the simplest question: Why do people sexually abuse? Or the more important question: What can be done to make them stop?
These are questions we won’t answer as long as we only study the minority of sexual abusers who are convicted of their crimes, or until our news media gives famous white men like Woody Allen and Ben Roethlisberger the same level of scrutiny as Ray Rice and Bill Cosby. As long as we see sexual abusers as abhorrent creeps, we won’t push for the kind of deeper understanding that will lead to real change.
The Cosby case has in some ways demonstrated how far we’ve come in our response to sexual violence. Famous people are publicly denouncing rape. Los Angeles police are investigating one of the few reports that falls within the statute of limitations. Entertainment venues are canceling his appearances and when they don’t protesters are gathering outside his shows.
But people who love Bill Cosby remain stuck. Their public statements have been inflammatory. And they’ve been criticized; they’ve been defensive. And while all that played out we lost yet another opportunity to be honest about the magnitude of sexual violence.
Given the prevalence of sexual abuse, it’s probably true that most of us like, love or respect someone who has perpetrated. Most abuse disclosures aren’t public, so we may spend our whole lives not knowing. But if allegations do surface, a lot of us will feel the same rage and disbelief that Phylicia Rashad expressed in her TV interview. It will be tempting to shut down and blame something other than the person we love. It will be more comfortable to convince ourselves that the events in question are anything other than abuse—a misunderstanding, a malicious lie. Instead of thoughtfully considering the allegation, it will be tempting to dismiss it.
Instead I hope we all do what I wish people close to Cosby had done. I wish they would ask him pointed, painful questions about the accusations. Those who love someone who has abused may have influence that the rest of us don’t. They may know that person well enough to help them stay out of places and social situations in which they typically perpetrate. Whether this would inspire anyone to acknowledge that they’d perpetrated the rapes I don’t know. But it would show them that people close to them love him enough to do what they can to keep him from abusing. And that’s better than denying the problem.