Bill Cosby headlines miss the point: His admissions aren't about "having sex," they're about assault

How we talk about Cosby's testimony matters

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 7, 2015 3:11PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

When talking about and reporting on accusations of sexual assault, it's imperative to choose your words carefully. Unless there's been a conviction, you need to frame the discussion in terms of allegations and rebuttals. All of that said, though, there's still no reason to participate in the illusion that drugging a person is about wanting to "have sex" with her. That's about wanting to remove the aspect of consent. And that's about rape. So what do you say we talk about the latest developments in the Bill Cosby story now?

In compelling newly released court documents from Temple employee Andrea Constand's 2005 sexual abuse lawsuit against him, the entertainer makes startling admissions in his deposition. The records were released by the Associated Press Monday, despite the Cosby team's efforts to keep them sealed, citing "a complete lack of legitimate public interest in the subject matter" and claiming the AP was only interested in "a celebrity sex scandal." In the transcript, it's noted that "After defendant testified that he obtained seven prescriptions for Quaaludes, the following testimony was elicited: 'Q. You gave them to other people? A. Yes…. Q. When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with? A. Yes. Q. Did you ever give any of those young women the Quaaludes without their knowledge? Mr. O’Connor: Object to the question.'" Later in the testimony Cosby describes an earlier encounter with a 19 year-old woman: "She meets me back stage. I give her Quaaludes. We then have sex."

Clearly, the questioning and answering at the time revolved around the word "sex," and clearly, there is a distinction to be made between consensual recreational drug use and incapacitating a person. If adults want to use substances together to loosen their inhibitions, that's their business. But let it be noted that the Andrea Constand suit was not about that. Back in 2006, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that "She alleged she was visiting Cosby's Main Line mansion in early 2004 when he gave her pills that he said were 'herbal medication' to help her cope with stress. After consuming the pills, she said, she felt hazy but remembered Cosby touching her breasts and genitals."

And in the months since a landslide of accusers began coming forward late last year, many women have repeated similar stories. In December, model Beverly Johnson wrote a Vanity Fair essay in which she claimed that during a visit to Cosby's home, he gave her a cappuccino and she quickly realized, "I’d been drugged — and drugged good." She says she summoned her strength to get out while he "put his hands around my waist." Another woman claimed that during a relationship in the eighties, he drugged her coffee and when she woke up later, "My clothes were a mess. My bra was undone. My top was untucked. And I'm sitting there going, 'Oh my God. Where am I?' What's going on?" Last year Janice Dickinson told Entertainment Tonight that in 1982, Cosby gave her wine and a pill he claimed was for menstrual cramps, and that then, "Before I woke up in the morning, the last thing I remember was Bill Cosby in a patchwork robe, dropping his robe and getting on top of me. And I remember a lot of pain."

Numerous accounts spanning decades of incidents follow the same lines — women saying that Cosby handed them a pill for a headache, or a drink, and then losing track of what happened next. As film executive Cindra Ladd wrote in February of a 1969 encounter, "To this day it remains a blur…. I was horrified, embarrassed and ashamed." There are now over three dozen women who've come forward with similar stories.

Bill Cosby has, for most of his career, been a successful, well liked public personality who could likely easily obtain willing sexual partners. Even if you're looking at a time nearly fifty years in the past, a guy like Cosby could find women to go to bed with him voluntarily. What appears to have been the pattern suggests something very different. And it's not simply, as Reuters reports, "Bill Cosby obtained drugs to give to women for sex." It's not, as NPR says, "Bill Cosby Admitted To Acquiring Drugs To Give To A Woman For Sex." It's surely not, as People puts it, "Bill Cosby Admits He Gave Woman Quaaludes Then Had Sex in Newly Released 2005 Court Papers." You know why? It wasn't a trade; it wasn't a "drugs for sex" transaction. And because you have sex with people who have sex with you. You have sex with people who are present and aware participants in the event. You don't make them black out first. What you do, when you choose to remove that aspect of mutual agreement from the encounter, sure sounds a whole lot like the legal definition of rape: "A victim can be incapacitated and thus unable to consent because of ingestion of drugs or alcohol."

We can talk about the Cosby story in a way that acknowledges he has not been arrested, he is not on trial and he has not been convicted of any crime. We can use words like "allegedly" and "claims." But when we perpetuate the idea that drugging a person and apparently removing her ability to say yes or no is about sex, we are giving that behavior a measure of validation. We're calling it a form of sex instead of a form of violence. And what the dozens of women who say Bill Cosby did something to them against their will are talking about isn't about having sex with a star, or him having sex with them. And we owe it to those women to remember that, and to say it.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Andrea Constand Bill Cosby Rape Sexual Abuse