I’ve been watching the allegations against “America’s Dad,” Bill Cosby, as one after another woman comes forward with claims that Mr. Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them. Comments on news stories and throughout social media run deep from one of the kinder terms for the alleged victims, “whimpering strumpets,” to those who find that Mr. Cosby should rethink his veiled responses on stage because, as one CBS news viewer noted, “His making jokes about drugging women’s drinks and raping them is NOT helping matters.”
While many point a finger at the media for even reporting on the multiple allegations against Mr. Cosby, what is most disturbing to me is the vitriolic epithets being hurled and character assassination attempts being made at his accusers.
The big question is, “Why did they wait so long to say something?” I understand why people might wonder about this; I think I have an answer, and while I wouldn’t presume to judge either side in this case, I can pretty comfortably address the question of why the “whimpering strumpets” waited. You see, as a child I was molested by a charismatic, beloved, and much-trusted family friend.
When it happened to me, I told no one. After all, who would have believed a young girl over a dynamic, wealthy business owner whom everyone loved? My abuser was charming, jovial – the real life of the party, and he was quick to help others and generous with his time and money. My parents adored him and valued his friendship so highly we even took family trips together. Everyone trusted and loved this suave and successful young father. And why not? He was, like Bill Cosby, a man of much power and influence, and it didn’t hurt that he had a great deal of money, too.
I didn’t tell a soul – not even my diary heard about it for years, and the only reason I broke my silence was because I learned, with great shame and sadness, that other young girls in our neighborhood had also been victimized by this “neighborhood dad” figure. I agonized, wondering if I had come forward sooner, could I have kept those other young girls from feeling as dirty and shameful as I had? I can assure you that, while a victim of sexual assault may have absolutely no responsibility or fault for the crime, she instantly and consistently feels that she has somehow provoked or caused the attack, and most of us hide under a veil of shame for years.
The New York Times reported in the results of a 2011 survey that nearly one in five women in the United States has, like me, been sexually assaulted. One in four of us has been beaten by an intimate partner, and one in six of us has been stalked. Yet most are like I was, foolishly blaming themselves, feeling completely powerless against a society that seems to lay the blame on the victim as effectively as she does it to herself, or hoping that not talking about it will make it go away and feel like it never happened.
Like the scores of women who have come forward with allegations against “America’s Dad,” I waited decades – more than four of them – to publicly share my story. And when I did tell my story, it was only because I knew that there were others like me – long silent, still harboring a secret shame, and still suffering. I may have missed the opportunity to help the young girls in the neighborhood all those years ago by being silent, and for that I hope I will be judged with mercy, but I won’t miss it again. Being the victim of sexual assault does not define me, but it does impel me to speak out to ensure that others do not suffer the same silent shame or punish themselves for somehow provoking the assault.
I am by no means a “whimpering strumpet,” and while it is not my place to make a judgment for or against the talented Mr. Cosby, I am compelled to stand in defense of any woman who is vilified for daring to speak publicly about sexual assault. As Americans, we are horrified when we learn of Pakistani women who have been raped and are then tried as criminals for adultery, yet we are quick to cast aspersions and label women with similar stories as “whimpering strumpets” and “sleazy” women who “put themselves alone in rooms with him (Cosby) and no adult supervision.” The mere fact that contemptuous comments like this (and others far more unseemly and not fit to repeat) are splattered across the internet might offer some understanding why scores of women chose to stay quiet and some even continued to spend time with a powerful, charismatic man whose reputation and wealth far exceeded the credibility any of their single accusations could have held against “America’s Dad.”
A court of law will eventually pass judgment on the allegations leveled against Mr. Cosby, but if I could ask one thing of others, it would simply be not to so quickly pass judgment on his accusers either. I cannot think of an amount of money that would be enough to make up for the decades of shame, the unhealthy choices and abusive relationships I endured because of something that was in no way my fault, or the opportunities I missed because I was sure there was something inherently wrong with me that somehow provoked or deserved the abuse. Decades later, the victims in these alleged attacks do not stand to gain fortune or fame because they are speaking out. I suspect they are doing so like me, to finally gain a sense of closure and a chance for peace and self-respect. And for that, I call them anything but “whimpering strumpets.” I call them sisters.