Daily Telegraph, Saturday 28 April 2018
It was a shock verdict, we were told, one of the most famous men in the American entertainment industry found guilty of sexual assault. For many of us, though, the only shocking thing about the outcome of Bill Cosby’s trial last week was that it has taken so many years for him to face justice.
This was a man who had been accused by dozens of women – literally, dozens – of drugging and sexually assaulting them. In 2006 he paid Andrea Constand, the woman he has just been convicted of assaulting two years earlier, £2.4m to settle a civil case she brought against him after prosecutors declined to file criminal charges.
Five other women, whose allegations fell outside the time limit for bringing criminal charges, gave evidence in Cosby’s latest trial. Last year, a previous trial collapsed after a jury failed to reach a verdict in a case involving the same complainant.
In all, 13 years passed from the time Constand first went to the police in 2005 and Cosby’s conviction on Thursday. It did not emerge until 2016, when records from the civil case were unsealed in advance in advance of his first trial, that Cosby had long ago admitted acquiring powerful sedative drugs to give to women he intended to have sex with.
All of this raises the question of how many women have to come forward, each of them describing an almost identical pattern of criminal behaviour, before a wealthy, well-known man faces a substantial risk of prosecution and conviction. Clearly, in Cosby’s case, that risk was so low that he believed he could get away with it.
Let’s not forget what he has been convicted of doing to Constand. The basketball player went to his house in Pennsylvania in 2004, seeking advice about her career. She told Cosby she was feeling stressed and he gave her three blue pills, describing them as her ‘friends’.
She began to feel drowsy and he guided her to a couch. The next thing she knew, Cosby was penetrating her vagina ‘quite forcefully’ with his fingers. In graphic testimony, she went on to say he touched her breasts and placed her hand on his penis in order to masturbate. He has now been convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
Cosby’s conviction has been hailed as a triumph for the ‘MeToo’ campaign, which led to the downfall of one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, Harvey Weinstein. He has always denied allegations of non-consensual sex but so many women have come forward that his career is now in ruins, and several criminal investigations are ongoing.
There is no doubt that the climate has changed where some powerful men are concerned. Women have discovered that there is strength in numbers, with several of Cosby’s accusers in court last week to hear the verdict.
But the Cosby case highlights just how difficult it is to mount a successful challenge to the myths that work in favour of men accused of serious sexual assaults. All the evidence suggests that very few rapists ever appear in court, let alone get convicted. Yet it is repeatedly claimed – without supporting evidence – that men like Cosby live in fear of malicious accusations from women trying to extort money.
This was precisely the claim made by his lead lawyer, Tom Mesereau, who tried to smear Constand with the claim that she was a ‘con artist’. His colleague Kathleen Bliss surely deserves a place in legal history for her use of misogynist stereotypes, describing a witness for the prosecution as a ‘failed starlet’ who sounded like she had ‘slept with every man on the planet’. The trial was, of course, about consent, not the sexual history of Cosby’s accusers.
His legal team evidently failed to realise that the public mood has changed somewhat since the success of the MeToo campaign. In theory, their 80-year-old client now faces the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence, although legal manoeuvres may delay sentencing.
But fact that his accusers were disbelieved for so long is a reminder that it takes courage and almost inhuman determination to bring sexual predators to justice. We’ve seen it in this country too, in horrific cases where girls told police and social workers they had been repeatedly raped by gangs of predators – and weren’t believed.
This climate of suspicion and disbelief has existed for a long time – and it is aimed at entirely the wrong people. Instead of reacting with shock to the belated conviction of one famous man, we should be asking how many hundreds and thousands of other men are still getting away with serious assaults on women.