"He masturbated with my hand": Why we demand graphic details from our sex abuse scandals

Both titillating and banal, these specifics become part of a grotesque collective narrative

By Erin Keane
Published November 21, 2014 7:20PM (EST)
Bill Cosby                      (Reuters/Eric Thayer)
Bill Cosby (Reuters/Eric Thayer)

At least eight women have gone on the record now with accusations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby, going back as far as 1967 and as recent as 2004. As more women come forward under their names, either from years of silence or from the group of 13 Jane Does who had been prepared to testify for Andrea Constand’s settled civil suit against Cosby, specific details of the alleged assaults will continue to enter the public conversation.

Just yesterday, the New York Daily News ran an interview with Angela Leslie, who says Cosby brought her to Las Vegas in 1992 with suggestions that he would help her in her acting career and then attempted to drug her, and forced her to fondle him in a hotel room. The specific details of this story have added another piece to the “how bad was it?” puzzle that the public demands to assemble during these kinds of high-profile scandals. On one hand, the situation is as bad as drugging women into unconsciousness and raping them. On the other, it is also as bad as this headline, both titillating and banal: “Former Actress Claims Bill Cosby ‘Masturbated With My Hand’,” which is to say, not bad enough for many to take this recent accusation as seriously as some of the others, given the sheer number of “this is getting out of hand” jokes cropping up on Twitter at the lightning speed of the half-clever.

The vast majority of us are not prosecutors, but there is still a tendency to want to assign a degree of severity to assault allegations based on idiosyncratic and highly individual internal barometers that are calibrated not to the severity of victims’ trauma but to each individual’s own sliding scale. The flaw in this human reaction is that only the victim is authentically able to assess just how bad it was.

In the Cosby accusations, the sheer number of stories that share these significant details, whether it’s the molly in her drink or the promises of career help, suggests a pattern of behavior that grows stronger with every subsequent on-record accusation. There is strength in numbers that can deflate the “bad date” revenge defense, which some cling to in the early stages of these public stories. (How many “jilted ex-girlfriends” nursing decades-old grudges can we plausibly expect one guy to rack up while he was married and running a highly demanding career, people wonder?)  But specific details also give Don Lemon and other idiots who watch too many crime procedural dramas ammunition to play devil’s advocate with skeptical questions like why didn’t you just bite him? Where the implied answer, culture-wide, is “because obviously you must not have wanted it to stop badly enough.”

There are still some people who think a victim of sexual assault only has a right to tell his or her story if the victim is forcibly, violently raped while actively fighting off the assailant, and if he or she is not willing to risk her own life to fight off the attacker, the victim is somehow, one of those tricky sliding scales, complicit in the assault. If she didn’t have to go to the hospital afterward, was it a "legitimate" rape or just … what? A “bad experience”?

In the case of the Cosby accusations, Carla Ferrigno’s story illuminates how ill-advised it is to try to make assumptions on severity of an assault based on the level of overt violence. In her story published yesterday by the Daily Mail about being brought on a double date with Cosby and his wife, only to end up alone with him in his house when he grabbed her and forcibly kissed her, she offers this reflection: "I feel so bad for these women. I was the lucky one," Ferrigno said. "I mean 'lucky' in that he didn't harm me. It harmed me emotionally all my life but he didn't physically harm me."

There is no “getting off easy” from sexual assault for the victim if, more than 45 years later, she can say she still feels emotionally harmed. Ferrigno says she wasn’t violently assaulted, but her remarks make it clear that she felt violated. Ultimately, that’s the detail that matters.

Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief.

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Bill Cosby Rape Sexual Assault