In one of the stranger developments in the world of pop culture scandals, much media attention has been focused on allegations that Bill Cosby raped over a dozen women over the course of decades. These allegations are nothing new, but now they're being talked about and this time, there are consequences. Talk show appearances are being canceled. People demanded that Cosby’s new show be axed, and it was. Even an attempt to create “Cosby memes” to promote his show backfired when Twitter flung the accusations back in Cosby's face.
What happened? The comedian Hannibal Buress included a joke about the rape accusations in his touring comedy routine. The simplest explanation, therefore, is that having a man validate the accusations, in a sexist society, is key. Certainly one of the alleged victims, Barbara Bowman, believes that’s the main reason. Or perhaps it’s because Buress packaged the accusations in a bit of cutting humor that sliced through all the usual excuse-mongering, drawing attention to the fact that multiple women have made the same accusation, making it really hard for Cosby to hide behind the women-are-crazy-and-vindictive stereotype.
No doubt both of these reasons help explain why this story has gone viral, but there is more to it. In the past year or so, there’s been a sea change in how our society thinks about rape, particularly acquaintance rape. For as long as feminists have been trying to raise the alarm about acquaintance rape, most of the public has wanted to make the discussion about what the victim did wrong: What she was wearing, what she was drinking, how she allowed herself to be alone with a man.
The focus of the discussion is finally shifting to where it belongs: men’s choices. Instead of asking why women do this or that, people are finally realizing that men make choices, too. And the choice to sexually assault a woman is neither inevitable nor natural, but means deliberately hurting someone to feel powerful. People are beginning to realize the way to stop rape is not to keep shaming women about partying, being alone with men, or being vulnerable, but to shame men for thinking it’s funny or cool to “take advantage” of a woman just because you can.
A major obstacle in changing attitudes about rape is there are literally decades of cultural endorsement of the idea that sex is a matter of a man getting one over on a woman, and therefore it’s okay to have sex with unwilling women using trickery, bullying or intoxicants.Popular songs like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Summer Nights” or “My Sharona” glorified force or exploitation as normal parts of seduction. More recently, “Blurred Lines” and “Blame It On The Alcohol” continued to push the notion that non-consent is something to be bullied or drunk away. Rape through trickery is treated like a throwaway bit in movies like Revenge of the Nerds or Face/Off. There’s a scene where handing a drunk girl off to be raped is treated like a joke in Sixteen Candles. Bill Cosby himself had a routine suggesting that all men just really want a drug that would strip a woman of her ability to say no to sex, an idea that seemed like a light-hearted joke in the '60s.
Obviously, the days of men expecting to get backslaps and high fives for using sleazy techniques to take advantage of women aren’t behind us. You still have the forums of “pick-up artists,” where the more unwilling a woman is, the more bragging points you get for corralling her into bed. You still have fraternities sending out emails about how to use alcohol and pressure to get the pants off women who really don’t want to have sex with you. You still have George Will insisting that forcing yourself on your date after she says no isn’t rape so much as “the ambiguities of the hookup culture.”
But now another conversation is happening: People are beginning to key into the fact that it’s not normal to want sex with someone who is laying there like a dead fish, crying, or otherwise giving in because she fears she isn’t getting out of this situation safely otherwise. In fact, that behavior is not funny or cool, but sad at best, and usually downright violent and predatory. A man who bullies an unwilling woman into bed isn’t “scoring” but a real creep. Sex should be something where both parties are interested in getting it on, not something that men inflict on reluctant or resisting women.
The real turning point appears to be the crisis over the sexual assault of a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio. What was remarkable about the incident, in which two teenage boys were convicted for sexually assaulting a girl who was blacked-out drunk, was how proud so many of the boys directly or tangentially involved in the situation were about getting one over on this poor girl. They had clearly absorbed the idea that sexually molesting a drunk girl wasn’t so much criminal as fair game, as evidenced by all the gleeful text messages and social media bragging about the event.
But all those texts and photos ended up being a rapid education for the public at large about what euphemisms like “taking liberties” are actually a cover for: Ugly, abusive behavior that openly dehumanizes the target. After seeing all that, it becomes much harder to characterize this sort of behavior as little more than “regrettable sex” or to suggest it’s just a matter of consensual drunken sex that women lie about later to preserve their reputations or get revenge for not getting a phone call in the morning. The cruelty of it was laid bare for all to see.
The past couple of years have also seen increased attention, aided by a White House initiative, to the problem of on-campus rape. As more college women come forward with stories, it’s becoming clear that men who might have, in the past, been written off as cads or lotharios for their habit of trying to “conquer” women are, in fact, sexual predators who get off on forcing women to do things they don’t want to do. To be clear, I’m not talking about men who have a lot of sex, which is fine. But the guys who specifically seek out drunk or vulnerable women to exploit are a different story. As sexual assault researcher David Lisak told NPR, these are guys who like to brag about getting one over on women. They were hiding in plain sight all along.
Over the past few years, this is the realization that has sunk into the public imagination: That most rapists are men who take pride in conquering women, who feel entitled to push past women’s boundaries, who think sex is a contest to be “won” instead of a mutual activity, and who may even think it’s funny or cool to get away with as much sexual abuse as they can. They know their victims aren’t consenting, and that is the challenge of it for them. They plan their crimes carefully. This is a game to them.
It was that realization that made it much easier for the public to square their image of Bill Cosby with the idea of a “rapist.” Cosby’s hard-working, strong-willed image was hard to square with the incorrect public image of an acquaintance rapist who just gets overwhelmed with lust and loses control. But once you understand that rapists are predators who have big egos and see women as objects to conquer and own, it’s much easier to see Cosby, who has never really hidden his more domineering tendencies, might find it exciting to treat women this way. And that is a huge part of why these long-standing allegations have finally caught the public imagination.