Just days after the Bill Cosby sexual assault trial was declared a mistrial, the comedian launched a plan to paint himself as a victim of his sexual assault allegations.
Representatives for Cosby announced in an interview with Birmingham’s WBRC show Good Day Alabama that Cosby will host a series of town hall meetings this summer instructing men on how to avoid being accused of sexual assault. One of Cosby’s representatives, Andrew Wyatt, explained that many people, particularly young athletes and married men, “need to know what they are facing when they are hanging out and partying, when they are doing certain things they shouldn’t be doing.” Ebonee Benson, speaking as a representative for Cosby’s wife Camille, stated that young people need to be educated on the expansion of the statutes of limitations on sexual assault, implicitly out of fear that these expansions will get them wrongfully accused. “People need to be educated about a brush against the shoulder,” Benson said. “Anything can be considered sexual assault.”
Despite these initial assertions that these town halls would educate people on sexual assault allegations, Cosby’s representatives told CNN on Sunday that these meetings are actually about restoring Cosby’s legacy. “The town hall meetings are not about sexual assault,” Benson said, directly contradicting statements both representatives made last week. For example, Wyatt confirmed with Fusion on Friday that the purpose of the meetings is to inform people about the dangers of false rape allegations, stating that Cosby’s case reflects a national trend of false indictments and high incarceration rates for black men.
Celebrities like Shonda Rhimes and Black Lives Matter activists have criticized Cosby’s portrayal of himself as a victim of an unjust judicial system. “From Shonda’s Town Hall on Avoiding Sexual Assault Charges,” Rhimes tweeted, “1. Do not sexually assault anyone. 2. Shut up—this attention belongs to survivors.” Organizations like RAINN and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) also spoke out soon after the initial announcement. Gloria Allred, who represents at least 28 of the women who have accused Cosby of assault, criticized the seminars as a tactic to make it more difficult to select an unbiased jury for his retrial.
Part of the reasoning for this justified criticism stems from the fact that false rape allegations are rare. According to a report by the NSVRC, false reporting only occurs in 2 to 10 percent of sexual assault allegations, and about two-thirds of all sexual assaults go unreported for a large variety of reasons. When the data is combined, it becomes apparent that few rape claims are “false.”
If this scheme to turn the situation on its head by portraying the accused as the victim sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Just last year, Brock Turner blamed his sexually assaulting a woman on the drinking and party culture at Stanford, and his father wrote a letter stating that Brock could spend time giving talks on the dangers of alcohol to “break the cycle of binge drinking and its unfortunate results.” Teen Vogue recently drew parallels between the Cosby seminar series, Brock Turner’s alcohol talks and a slew of other similar cases—including Adam Ritz’s college talks on alcohol consumption and Cris Dishman’s announcement of seminars on athletics and sexual assault.
The implications of Cosby’s town halls—that young men are unjustifiably accused of sexual assault and need to protect themselves from being seen as perpetrators—present sexual assault as something that is often falsely alleged and equate it to something as harmless as a shoulder brush. They also assert that men, instead of realizing the terrible nature of sexual assault, need to realize that they are the victims and safeguard themselves accordingly.
While outwardly claiming to help those who are falsely accused, Cosby’s purported seminars would more likely be instructional tutorials on how to escape being prosecuted after committing a crime. The parallel threads of making sexual assault illegitimate by claiming to be falsely accused and protecting oneself after perpetuating that very assault feed into a harmful cycle of victim-blaming and consequence-avoiding. Talks like those his representatives have described have been championed by perpetrators as a tactic of transferring blame.
By implying that he is the victim of over 50 sexual assault accusations, Cosby validates himself and others like him as gracious instructors for future good rather than the people who perpetuate rape culture in the first place. “This issue is bigger than Bill Cosby,” Wyatt said on Wednesday. And it is—just not for the reasons he asserts. The issue in question, which has been hugely distorted by Cosby and other perpetrators of sexual assault, is one of victim-blaming and its toxic perpetuation of rape culture—not one of restoring a legacy or instructing young men on how to avoid blame.
Men can avoid rape accusations very simply: by not raping anyone. If Cosby truly wants to restore his legacy, he should consider trying the latter rather than teaching the former.