What was previously unimaginable is now happening: Bill Cosby has been formally charged with sexual assault in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The charges relate to accusations made by Andrea Constand, who claims that Cosby drugged and assaulted her while she was a Temple University employee in 2004.
Constand sued Cosby in 2005 over the incident, settling out of court for an undisclosed sum, but the district attorney at the time declined to press charges.
So what's changed? The current prosecutor, Kevin Steele, claims that they have new evidence to charge Cosby with. This likely pertains to the recently released documents from the 2005 lawsuit, where Cosby admitted that he had a habit of giving women drugs to have sex with them, though he maintained that sex with Constand was consensual on the grounds that she did "not look angry" after the fact. These documents were released over the summer after having been sealed for years.
But the fact that there are charges now and there weren't at the time also suggests something about then cultural shift in attitudes around the issue of sexual abuse. After all, the rumors and accusations about Bill Cosby are nothing new. Constand's 2005 lawsuit involved 13 more women pointing a finger at Cosby. There was even a blip of media coverage around the accusations in 2005, though it quickly drifted back under the radar without doing much damage to Cosby's reputation.
Even as late as 2014, Tom Scocca of Gawker was asking why the multiple accusations against Bill Cosby were so quickly forgotten:
To reiterate: This was in People magazine, published nationwide in December 2006. Four women said publicly, in major media outlets, that Bill Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted them. This coverage was more recent and possibly more prominent that the coverage of the abuse allegations against Woody Allen.
"Basically nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator," Scocca concluded. "It was too much to handle."
Apparently not. Or maybe it was too much for people to handle in February of 2014, but by October of that same year, people were ready to listen. That's when comedian Hannibal Buress, likely inspired both by Scocca's piece and by interviews with two other accusers published in Newsweek, accused Cosby of being a rapist in his stand-up act. This blew the doors off the whole thing, causing a cascade of media attention, with dozens of women stepping forward and 35 of the agreeing to be interviewed, by name, for New York in July 2015.
These charges are barely skating in under the statute of limitations, which has long passed for most of the accusations. It might seem excessive at this point to try to get this one at the last minute, especially considering Cosby's advanced age and the serious hit his reputation has taken.
But in reality, this move is a crucial one. Cosby has been able to keep a lid on this for so long by being incredibly litigious. Just this month, Cosby sued a number of his accusers for defamation, demanding retractions of their public statements. Whether or not he can win that lawsuit is beside the point. The move seems to be more about using Cosby's immense wealth to intimidate his accusers into silence. But throwing money around in an attempt to silence people is a harder thing to pull off when you're being slapped in cuffs and made to do the perp walk.
The sad fact of the matter is that Cosby isn't nuts in thinking that he could be successful by suing for defamation. While most in the media seem to grasp that it's nearly impossible for 50 women to all by nutty bitches who are making stuff up because women are crazy, the stereotype that women are inherently untrustworthy and prone to fabrication still has a strong hold over much of the public.
A huge number of people still give one man's word more credibility than that of a busload of women's word, as evidenced by the standing ovations that Bill Cosby has been enjoying in his latest stand-up tour. Under the circumstances, it's not unreasonable to fear that he could have strong-armed a retraction out of his accusers, which in turn would help reinstate the myth that many to most women who accuse rape are just crazy women making stuff up. (Obviously, a small percentage of women who claim rape are lying, but the numbers are much smaller that much of the public believes.) Knee-capping his efforts by having an actual prosecutor, especially one close to home, filing charges is a huge victory against those efforts.