Article Lead Image

How to talk about Bill Cosby without ruining Thanksgiving

Make Thanksgiving the perfect teachable moment.


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Nov 27, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 2:59 am CDT

On Thanksgiving, when everyone has washed down their pound of turkey with too many beers and the conversation turns to current events, it’s likely a recipe for disaster.

If your ultra-conservative cousin starts talking about how Obama‘s executive action on immigration is part of a secret plot to destroy America, or how everyone who rioted after the Darren Wilson grand jury needs to stop mooching off the government and get jobs, your best course of action is simply not to engage. No one’s mind is going to be changed by listening to a family member drunkenly recite talking points they once heard someone else paraphrase. 

Seriously, just avoid those conversations however you can.

There is, however, one argument worth making: How the country needs to change the laws to protect Bill Cosby’s alleged victims and the millions of people around the country in similar situations.

Yeah, it’s a heavy topic, but it sits right in the perfect nexus of relatively uncontroversial and immensely important.

The list of women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault seems to grow by the day. One tally by Slate lists 19 women who have come out in recent weeks detailing an disturbing series of alleged incidents stretching from a decade ago all the way back to 1965.

If the allegations are to be believed—and their sheer number and consistency does give them considerable credibility—Cosby is a sociopathic monster who has used his considerable artistic success to lecture the African-American community about morality while violating every standard of ethical behavior in the book. Not only has he been accused of a longstanding pattern of sexual assault, but the New York Post reports that he once leaked a story about his daughter’s drug problems to convince the National Inquirer not to print a story about his sexual proclivities.

While the 77-year-old Cosby has undoubtedly lost what remains of his career—his planned Netflix comedy special and in-development NBC sitcom have both been scrapped—there’s no guarantee that all the women who have accused the star of rape will receive justice.

The issue is that, since the alleged incidents span nearly half a century, the time window for which charges can be filed has passed for more than half of the women who have come forward accusing Cosby of rape.

If you want a political topic that you can probably get everyone at your Thanksgiving table to not only agree upon, but also get legitimately fired up about, eliminating state laws imposing a statue of limitations on sexual assault is a pretty solid bet.

In California, where the largest number of Cosby’s alleged sexual assaults took place, a suspect has to be prosecuted within ten years of committing the offense—unless the attack took place when the victim was underage, in which case that window closes when he or she turns 28.

Cosby’s alleged assaults in California stretch from 1965 to 1982, meaning he has successfully evaded being brought to justice for them. For example, there’s Kristina Ruehli, who told Philidelphia Magazine that Cosby tricked her into coming over to his house, drugged her drink, and then she woke up to the comedian attempting to force her into performing oral sex. There’s also Victoria Valentino, who recounted to the Washington Post a “nightmare” scenario where Cosby fed her and a friend mysterious pills and then assaulted them in the star’s Los Angeles home.

For Ruehli, Valentino, and many others, the ability to press charges against Cosby has evaporated.

While not all states place time limits on sexual assault prosecutions, the 34 that do make up a wildly inconsistent patchwork. Some states allow victims to press charges against their attackers up to 30 years after the incident; others close that window after three. Standardizing the rules in Congress would be ineffective because these types of crimes rarely rise to the federal level, unless the attack occurs on federal property, like a national park.

Statute of limitations laws on sexual assaults and many other crimes have been around in some form for centuries. The idea behind the laws is that, over time, memories fade. Putting a hard stop on accusations is intended to protect people from unfairly going to jail based on unreliable testimony.

But, as occurred with Cobsy, it often takes victims of sexual assault a really long time to muster the courage to come forward, explains Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, especially if there is a significant power imbalance between the victim and her or his attacker.

“Victims are often very reluctant to come forward unless they believe their case is going to be taken seriously,” Berkowitz says. “When other victims start coming forward it can give them the confidence that someone really is going to take a close look at their their case.”

But that can take years, if not decades, to finally occur. Yet, after a victim makes the news by coming forward to accuse a prominent figure within a community, it often sends a signal to other victims that it’s okay to speak out.

“We see this phenomenon all the time,” Berkowitz says. “It’s something we saw a lot with the Catholic Church scandal. When a priest was accused, many of the other people he had abused over the years started coming forward. We also see it in situations where the abuser isn’t famous but is locally prominent—the coach of an athletic team, the teacher at the a school, a pediatrician.”

In fact, the scandals of the Catholic Church did a lot to move the laws in the right direction.

When a flood of the victims of Catholic priests started alleging abuse that happened years, if not decades prior, a number of state legislatures changed their laws to lengthen the period of time someone could go back and file a civil suit for sexual abuse. Once such bill that was passed in Massachusetts earlier this year would let people abused as minors sue their attackers up until the age of 53.

The issue came up in this year’s Texas gubernatorial race, when Democrat Wendy Davis made a campaign issue out of a woman who was sexually assaulted in 1985. The state lost her rape kit until 2005, by which time it was too late to prosecute. When her opponent, Republican Greg Abbot, was asked about it, he agreed with Davis’s position that the state’s law should be changed. Whether or not Abbot, who trounced Davis in November, will push the Texas legislature to pass legislation to address the issue remains to be seen, but Abbot’s willingness to endorse his opponent’s plan shows the issue is one that easily crosses traditional partisan lines.

Mel Townsend, a Kansas woman who was raped in 2005 by a man who broke into her house, successfully lobbied the state’s legislature to eliminate statue of limitations laws for sexual assault. She recently told Mother Jones that the main reason these laws still are in place is ignorance. “[The law in Kansas] hadn’t been changed before simply because most people were unaware that the statute even existed in the first place,” she said.

The vote in favor of repealing the Kansas law was unanimous.

That unanimity is precisely what makes using the inevitable mention of Cosby around the Thanksgiving table the perfect teachable moment. It’s a safer topic than Obamacare and it just may convince your cousin to email his congressperson about something other than #Benghazi. See, progress.

Photo by US Navy-Kevin S. O’Brien/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Share this article
*First Published: Nov 27, 2014, 11:45 am CST