Photo via Ted Eytan/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bill Cosby and the haunting nature of sexual assault

The haunting trauma of sexual assault never leaves you.

Internet Culture

Published Jan 1, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 9:01 pm CDT

In the last few weeks, more than 20 women have publicly alleged that Bill Cosby has drugged and or sexually assaulted them. These brave women, some of them silent for decades, are now sharing their stories with the world.

The growing conversation on sexual assault in our country is promising, and the way the Cosby story has unfolded connects to that dialogue in critical ways. With the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault setting regulations for colleges, new laws in California, and the developing support of celebrities and Hollywood, discussion of sexual assault has finally gone mainstream.

When we talk about assault, we discuss the right now. Getting survivors help as soon as possible. Finding advocates to talk to, searching for resources, getting the survivor out of the relationship, assisting with prosecution if the survivor so chooses. For many who do not actually work with survivors of assault, these seem like the key focus areas. And they are. Getting people help when they are ready for it is crucial.

But a surprising fact I have learned as an advocate is how a majority of the people we assist at the organization I am affiliated with are people coming forward years later, because they can’t shake off their haunted feelings.

One thing that suppresses their voices in the days and weeks after the assault is blame. Many people in survivors’ lives ask seemingly innocent but damaging questions that push the blame onto survivors. What were you wearing? Were you drunk? Did you do something to lead him on?

When celebrities are involved, our default reaction is to wonder if the accuser is in it for the fame. As if anyone would want their name to forever be publicly associated with being sexually assaulted? But as The Good Men Project contributor Christopher Anderson reminded us in his most recent piece on journalism and victim blaming, a recent study showed that only between two percent and 10 percent of rape allegations are false. That being said, the vast majority of people brave enough to share their stories are telling the truth.

Still, the fact that it takes years for many survivors to speak causes us to doubt both the accuracy of their memories and the veracity of their narratives. Why can’t they remember all the details? If it was really that bad, wouldn’t they know more? Another contributor to The Good Men Project, Elisabeth Corey, recently wrote about this connection with the Rolling Stone piece regarding the rape of a University of Virginia student. Corey pointed out that:

Traumatic memories don’t work like that. A traumatic memory is stored in the brain and body like a glass bottle is shattered on the floor. Everything goes in different directions. A part of the memory is stored in one part of the brain. Another part of the memory is stored in another part of the brain. The memories don’t store like a movie reel. They store like the memories we have when we were toddlers. This happens because the same part of our brain is in charge. We are in flight, fight or freeze when we are experiencing trauma.

A recent article in Time by psychologist James Hopper also discussed the connection between trauma and memory loss. Hopper pointed out that it is not only the survivors of sexual assault who may have trouble recounting events. It’s similar for members of the military and police officers who have experienced traumatic incidents. Interestingly, we readily accept error in recalling details from veterans and law enforcement, but when it comes to survivors of assault, we need every last detail to be accurate and exact.

Popular media, which thrives on sound bites, focuses only on the incident itself, often leading to intense victim-blaming instead of a thorough exploration of the crime. An example is a recent episode of The View in which Whoopi Goldberg questioned Beverly Johnson’s credibility, since Johnson claims she was drugged before the assault. Charges from a woman in California were also dropped because the statute of limitations has since expired, and Cosby’s lawyers have claimed there is no proof.

What’s missing from the discussion is how, if the allegations are true, Cosby stole an intimate part of these women’s lives. Roxanne Gay said it perfectly:

Rape is an appalling crime. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around it, really—that a person can feel so entitled to the body of another that the person forces himself inside another person. Rapists take something so intimate—access to your insides—something to which they have no right. They violate your bodily sanctity, your emotional sanctity, your trust in your insides and everything outside, your confidence that your body is your own or that your trauma requires or deserves justice. Crime hardly feels like an adequate word.

What else can we learn from Cosby’s accusers?

Many of the women are coming forward after years and years of silence that date back as far as the 1960s. Fifty years later and these women still felt the need to come forward, still felt it was a piece of their lives they needed to talk about.

The pain of assault does not go away.

Carla Ferrigno has come forward with an incident from 1967 where she claims Cosby forcibly kissed her. She was just 18 at the time, working as a Playboy bunny.

Helen Hayes alleged that in 1973 Cosby stalked her and a friend all day at a celebrity tennis tournament, finally coming behind her and grabbing one of her breasts from behind.

Judy Huth claimed she was 15 years old when Cosby sexually molested her at a Playboy mansion party in 1974. Huth has filed a lawsuit in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The lawsuit states that “this traumatic incident, at such a tender age, has caused psychological damage and mental anguish for (Huth) that has caused her significant problems throughout her life since the incident.”

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), victims of adult or childhood sexual assault are more likely to develop patterns of substance abuse, self-harm, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and sleep disorders.

These are some of the lifelong problems that the survivors of Bill Cosby’s alleged crimes have lived with, as do most survivors of sexual assault.

To date, Cosby and his representatives have ignored the allegations. Cosby finally broke his silence by calling for neutrality on the subject from black media. Cosby’s wife Camille released a statement maintaining his innocence. His daughter supported him last week by releasing a short statement that included the line: “He is the father you thought you knew.”

If people who have never been assaulted or known someone who has have difficulty talking about it, imagine how hard it is for a survivor to come forward. Perpetrators rely on the silence of their victims, the shame they feel over what happened to them, and their fear of being blamed for causing it if they share their story. That’s why it’s so important to support survivors and never dismiss their accounts.

The after effects of sexual assault linger on forever. The reason these allegations and the incidents they describe have come back to haunt Bill Cosby now is simple; they never stopped haunting the survivors.

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project, and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via Ted Eytan/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 1, 2015, 10:00 am CST