Beyond Crime and Punishment: On Holding Bill Cosby Accountable and Ending Rape Culture
By Rachael Stoeve
As of November 26, at least 19 women have publicly accused comedian Bill Cosby of raping or sexually assaulting them. In addition, one of the victims, former Playboy Club waitress P.J. Masten, has said that there are 12 other former Playboy Club waitresses who have privately told her Cosby assaulted them as well. The charges date back to 1965, but didn’t come to light until 2005, when 13 women came forward to support a civil suit brought by Andrea Constand. The case was settled in 2006, but Cosby’s history resurfaced this year.
In the past few weeks, various writers have dissected the reasons why no one, including in many cases the writers themselves, was willing to hold Bill Cosby accountable. One of those reasons, according to Rebecca Traister, is that Cosby “offered one of the most soothing versions of the story of race in America,” one in which racism had been overcome by inexorable social progress, and people failed or succeeded entirely on their own merit. In this, Cosby also represented a fantasy about social class in America. His attainment of wealth and fame was seen as evidence that anyone could achieve economic and social power. But celebrity culture does not fundamentally challenge oppression. By upholding certain people as exceptional, we reinforce stereotypes about those who don’t reach such powerful heights – and we obscure how power imbalances are built into our political system through laws, attitudes, and policies that affect how we relate in our homes, schools, workplaces, and other social institutions. No one person should possess as much social and economic power as Bill Cosby does. The idea that someone’s talent, wealth, reputation or fame automatically absolves them of responsibility or clears them of wrongdoing reinforces inequality, and inequality creates social conditions that lead to rape and sexual assault.
Beyond his representation of racial dynamics in America, Cosby’s social class, enabled by celebrity, is a key reason he has not yet been held accountable. He is one of the most famous, successful, and beloved public figures of our time. He has the money to make allegations go away – which he attempted to do in 2006 with the settlement of Constand’s lawsuit. And mainstream media enables this lack of accountability through victim-blaming language. This is a pattern repeated over and over in our society: wealthy and powerful men are rarely held accountable for their abuses. Especially in cases of rape and sexual assault, stereotypes persist of perpetrators as poor and/or nonwhite strangers, who attack women in dark and isolated areas. However, statistics show that two-thirds of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, more than half of all attacks take place in or near the victim’s home, and 52% of perpetrators are white.
So far, the mainstream conversation about justice in these cases has been limited to seeking resolution through the courts and the police. But, as anarchists and other radical activists have pointed out, interpersonal violence is inseparable from institutional violence. INCITE!, a national organization founded to address violence against women of color, has extensively analyzed the ways that state violence intertwines with racism and gender-based violence.
Anarchist analyses make a similar argument that the state, the legal system, and police combine to form a coercive authority that exists to uphold the interests of the privileged. This authority maintains its power through threat of violence and through hierarchies based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other categories that keep wealthy men – particularly straight, white, cis-men – in power and unaccountable. In this system, “justice” is punitive, and rests on proving that a crime happened according to the state’s definition, rather than rectifying the harm that was done and rehabilitating the offender to prevent further harms.
Since anarchists are opposed to hierarchies, domination, and exploitation, appealing to the state has never been our first reaction when faced with issues such as rape and sexual assault in our communities. As a result, anarchists have experimented with different models that seek to address the root cause of gender-based violence instead of just punishing and locking up the offender or subjecting the victim to further trauma with the police or in court.
The longest-running and most successful example of this was a Philadelphia-based effort, begun in 2004 and comprised of two groups: Philly’s Pissed and Philly Stands Up. Timothy Colman, a member of the Philly’s Pissed collective, writes that the group worked with survivors to find out “what support they need in that moment and help them figure out how to get it, then remain in the picture after their immediate needs are met and they begin the process of figuring out what justice and healing will mean to them.” This could mean distributing fliers about the perpetrator and their actions, beginning a community accountability circle with the perpetrator, or asking that the perpetrator leave community spaces when the survivor is present.
Philly Stands Up acted as a complement, working with perpetrators “to recognize and change behavior, rather than ostracizing and allowing future assaults elsewhere.” Both groups also worked to educate and involve their communities in the process through workshops and other events and actions. Philly’s Pissed no longer exists, but the Philly Survivor Support Collective has taken their place, and Philly Stands Up continues its work.
The work of these two collectives is similar to restorative justice, which can be traced back to many indigenous communities and is gaining popularity and visibility as a non-punitive method for resolving conflict. In this model, the community works together with the victim and the perpetrator to repair the harm done, focusing on the needs of the victim and on the rehabilitation of the perpetrator. In their pamphlet Accounting for Ourselves, the anarchist authors go one step farther, arguing the need for what they call transformative justice, which “links restorative justice’s focus on rectifying harm rather than strengthening state power with a critique of systematic oppression.” In this way, the focus is not only reactive but proactive, allowing for continued work to change the social conditions that lead to violence.
Although Cosby continues to deny the allegations made against him, the actor has already faced social consequences. His honorary Navy title has been revoked, he has stepped down from the Temple University board of trustees and canceled several stand-up shows, and a television program in the works with NBC has been shelved. Gloria Allred, attorney for several of his victims, has challenged him to waive the statute of limitations on the accusations and stand trial, or begin a $100 million compensation fund for the victims. In some ways these actions are good first steps. Cosby’s money could be directed towards education and advocacy work against sexual assault and in support of survivors. But these steps on their own ultimately reinforce ideas of justice that revolve around money and crime. A more powerful consequence might be a public apology and admission of wrongdoing, supplemented by required counseling and education from anti-rape activists and regular public report-backs on progress. We need justice that recognizes and challenges the systems of oppression and exploitation that made it possible for Cosby to suppress these allegations for so long while maintaining his position of power and privilege. As Barbara Bowman, one of Cosby’s victims, told Rolling Stone, “I never came forward for money. My statute of limitations had long run out. I came out to support the victims and encourage women still living in fear to have courage.” This kind of social support is part of what works to hold rapists accountable. Educating others and organizing support systems of allies and survivors who refuse to be silent is a necessary part of anti-rape activism.
The Philly collectives, with their emphases on transformative justice and education, and restorative justice, with its emphasis on repairing harm, offer small-scale examples we can learn from as we work for the end of gender-based violence. By identifying concepts and practices that can scale up from these efforts, we can then experiment with methods that will work on a larger scale. Grounding any method in a transformative justice analysis is the first step. Acknowledging the role that oppression and institutional violence play in social harm is the key to preventing future Bill Cosbys – or UVAs, or Steubenvilles, or Santa Barbaras, or murders of transwomen, or all the other instances of gender-based violence so prevalent in our society.
Complementary to that is supporting other anti-violence and anti-oppression work. Gender-based violence is interwoven with the race, class, and other identities of the victim and the perpetrator. Undoing the systems of oppression and privilege that make up our society will transform and strengthen our communities – emotionally, socially, and economically – and will help us resist and end violence in all its forms.
Rachael Stoeve is a queer feminist writer and activist based in Seattle. She has reported for YES! Magazine and TruthOut, and her essays and poetry have appeared in Fifth Estate, Poplorish, and Quail Bell Magazine. She participated in the Occupy movement, which introduced her to anarchist ideas and organizing, and has since supported various social justice movements.