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For every woman who comes out to accuse Bill Cosby of rape—there were three more this week—another character witness comes out of the woodwork to defend him. After Jill Scott reached out to support him on Twitter, his former co-star Phylicia Rashad did the same. While she insisted her “forget these women” sound byte was taken out of context, Rashad went on World News Tonight With David Muir to clarify that she believes this isn’t about Cosby’s overwhelming swell of sexual assault allegations; it’s about “the obliteration of legacy.” Rashad continued, “He’s a genius. He is generous. He’s kind. He’s inclusive.” Twitter users voiced disappointment in these statements, saying “Clair Huxtable would never.”
These statements were strikingly similar to those of Keisha Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy on The Cosby Show. When asked about the claims, including allegations from former supermodels Beverly Johnson and Janice Dickinson, Pulliam told Access Hollywood Live, “I can only speak to the great man that I know and love, who has been so generous, who has been such a philanthropist, giving back millions of dollars to education and schools…Everything that’s happened, it’s so unfortunate, the whole thing is very, very unfortunate. But I can’t ignore the legacy he’s built.” She further describes Cosby as “awesome.”
The more we insist that rape is the province of bad people—as if rapists have some identifiable mark of the devil—the more we make it less likely rape victims will come forward or be believed.
I personally have no idea whether or not Cosby is guilty, but I know that Cosby’s moral character has no bearing on whether or not he is a rapist. He might be awesome, he might be a great hugger, he might be known as a perfectly amiable fellow to all of those who knew him, but men we believe to be “nice guys” are just as capable of raping someone as the shadowy figures we envision lurking in dark alleys, waiting to strike. And the more we insist that rape is the province of bad people—as if rapists have some identifiable mark of the devil—the more we make it less likely rape victims will come forward or be believed. What woman, even Beverly Johnson, can compete with a “nice guy?”
A 2007 poll from Australia’s the Age polled Aussies on this very topic, revealing “that the average Australian places less blame on a rapist if they knew their victim or had a ‘nice guy’ reputation, or if the woman involved dressed or behaved questionably.” The outlet continues, “In these situations, they saw the rape as less ‘serious’ and were more likely to recommend the offender get a lighter sentence or avoid jail altogether.” While this is undoubtedly troubling, it’s only part of the picture: We’re not only more likely to advocate less prison time for “nice guys,” we’re less likely to believe they’re guilty altogether.
Take this 1997 story published in the Chicago Tribune, called “Alleged Rapist a ‘Nice Guy.’” Written by the Trib’s Wes Smith, the article describes the sexual assault allegations against Vinson “Vince” Champ, a stand-up comedian who played gigs at colleges across the country. Nearly every person the newspaper speaks with describes Champ as an all-around mensch, y’know, except for those domestic violence charges in his past.
Ross Ario, a comedy club booker who worked with Champ, reported being “totally shocked because the people who had him perform always had nice things to say about him,” while Illinois State University’s student activities coordinator insisted, “He was never raunchy or offensive at all.” Ario agreed that only a lewd comedian could be a rapist: “There are a lot of violent comics out there that you might think would do something like this, but Vince was not one of them.” While his stand-up act might not have included profanity, Champ is currently serving 55-70 years in prison for raping eight women.
Think about it: Who is likely to be more successful: a charming rapist who is able to lower his victim’s defenses or someone you aren’t willing to trust to begin with?
While Champ was well-liked by those who knew him, the evidence shows that his “nice guy” persona wasn’t detached from the crimes of which he was convicted and likely made it easier to continue assaulting women. Think about it: Who is likely to be more successful: a charming rapist who is able to lower his victim’s defenses or someone you aren’t willing to trust to begin with? Even though that joie de vivre might give someone an appearance of charm, coolness, or kindness, it can often mask sociopathic behavior or violent tendencies. After all, people are complex, and it’s nearly impossible to see the whole of a person, even one you know well.
In a great essay for the Guardian, Jill Filipovic eviscerates the idea that “nice guys” can’t rape—and if they happen to sexually assault someone, they likely didn’t know what they’re doing. After all, they were just confused; they didn’t mean it. “Academics, researchers and sociologists have done in-depth studies on sexual assault and found that it’s actually a small number of men who commit large numbers of acquaintance rapes,” Filipovic writes. “Most of those men intentionally target intoxicated women. They socially isolate them, ply them with alcohol to incapacitate them and intentionally push their boundaries to make them vulnerable.”
Filipovic’s profile sounds less like the mythic case of a clueless guy misreading the signals and accidentally stumbling into rape and more like what Bill Cosby’s alleged victims accuse him of: a clear pattern of behavior leading to continued abuse. Cosby’s accusers repeatedly report being drugged and passing out, only to find themselves awake in a hotel room or bedroom, with a limo on the way to take them home.
If the allegations prove to be true, it’s this very “nice guy” defense that likely made it hard for these women to cope with what happened or come forward, even years after the initial incident. In an essay for the Frisky, Amelia McDonell-Perry says the same rationalization led her to excuse and deny her rapist’s actions. Perry writes, “As I thought about it in the days after, I excused his raping me as a breakdown of communication. He hadn’t meant to rape me, so therefore it couldn’t be rape. Besides, he was a nice guy and nice guys just don’t rape.”
You wouldn’t say about a bank robber, “Ah, let him go. He’s such a nice guy!”
In order to move past this limiting idea or what rape is and who rapists are, we should take a page out of vlogger Jay Smooth’s playbook. To address racism, Smooth argues, that it’s unhelpful to debate about whether or not “someone is a racist,” which only leads to arguments and pointed fingers; instead, we should look at a person’s behavior, illustrating the ways in which they are espousing racist beliefs. In the same way, it’s not helpful to debate Bill Cosby’s legacy or the “good” he’s done for society. He might be a good guy, but good guys do bad things all the time. They steal, they cheat on their taxes, and they lie to their spouses—and it doesn’t make them any less guilty. You wouldn’t say about a bank robber, “Ah, let him go. He’s such a nice guy!”
If anything, Phylicia Rashad and Keisha Knight Pulliam should count themselves very lucky that “the man [they] knew” contradicts Beverly Johnson and Janice Dickinson’s statements. Were they to know the same version of who Cosby is alleged to be, Rashad and Pulliam might not think he’s such a nice guy after all.
Photo via The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.