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Bill Cosby has just been convicted on three counts of sexual assault, resulting from allegations first made by Andrea Constand back in 2004. This could lead to the man once known as ‘America’s father’ spending up to 30 years in jail.

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Should this be considered an isolated event, or does this verdict signal that we are in a new era, fuelled by a newfound courage in the way we view and deal with the phenomenon of male sexual misconduct? Are recent awareness movements such as #MeToo emblematic of a larger shift in our consciousness?

The Story of Barbara Bowman

To help us get some context for this question, let’s take a look at a 2014 Washington Post article entitled, “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?” The article details the experiences of Barbara Bowman, who was sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby while she was a 17-year old protégé of his in 1985.

After sporadic experiences of a sexual nature over a two-year period, some which were obscured by Cosby’s use of drugs on her, her time with Cosby ended in Atlantic City, where they had traveled for an industry event. She occupied a bedroom in his suite, where she recalls, “he pinned me down in his own bed while I screamed for help…I furiously tried to wrestle from his grasp until he eventually gave up, angrily called me “a baby” and sent me home to Denver.” In all respects, their relationship ended that night.

Nowhere To Turn

Her description of the powerlessness she felt subsequent to that event encapsulates what so many vulnerable women have faced at the hands of men in positions of authority and influence, not just in the entertainment industry but also in sports, in the workplace, indeed in just about any realm of our society that is rooted in male-centricity:

Back then, the incident was so horrifying that I had trouble admitting it to myself, let alone to others. But I first told my agent, who did nothing. (Cosby sometimes came to her office to interview people for “The Cosby Show” and other acting jobs.) A girlfriend took me to a lawyer, but he accused me of making the story up. Their dismissive responses crushed any hope I had of getting help; I was convinced no one would listen to me. That feeling of futility is what ultimately kept me from going to the police. I told friends what had happened, and although they sympathized with me, they were just as helpless to do anything about it. I was a teenager from Denver acting in McDonald’s commercials. He was Bill Cosby: consummate American dad Cliff Huxtable and the Jell-O spokesman. Eventually, I had to move on with my life and my career.

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Our Own Complicity

Thirty years later, when the 2014 article was written, Bowman did not know that Bill Cosby would be indicted. She felt that her efforts over the previous decade to speak out about him went largely ignored, although when male comedian Hannibal Buress called Bill Cosby a rapist in a comedy routine in 2014, substantial publicity against Cosby began to take hold. Her observations at the time give us something important to think about:

Fixing this problem demands more than public shaming. For Cosby to commit these assaults against multiple victims over several years, there had to be a network of willfully blind wallflowers at best, or people willing to aid him in committing these sexual crimes at worst. As I told the Daily Mail, when I was a teenager, his assistants transported me to hotels and events to meet him. When I blacked out at Cosby’s home, there were several staffers with us. My agent, who introduced me to Cosby, had me take a pregnancy test when I returned from my last trip with him. Talent agents, hotel staff, personal assistants and others who knowingly made arrangements for Cosby’s criminal acts or overlooked them should be held equally accountable.

While she is likely gratified now that Cosby has been convicted, her comments point to what really needs to happen if this is to signal the start of a profound healing in our society.

Ending sexual abuse on the part of powerful people in our society is not about changing the behaviors of the self-centered ego’s that still hold the majority of control in our world. It has more to do with changing the culture within which these acts are allowed to occur. The amount of people who deny, look the other way, passively enable or actively facilitate such acts are the ones who have to start looking at themselves in the mirror—or even be held equally accountable, as Bowman suggests—for lasting change to occur.

Remember in the Nuremberg trials, where German soldiers could not escape culpability by saying they were merely following orders? So too do we as individuals have to stop enabling obviously inappropriate behavior on the part of powerful people just because we are afraid to say anything or because our career advancement hangs in the balance.

Not About Punishment

Punishing the perpetrators may be part of this process but it certainly is not the end goal. The danger of movements such as #MeToo is that they can eventually become co-opted to focus on a fight between perpetrators and victims that is very polarizing and keeps us from all coming together on this issue. Of course, it is crucial that victims such as Barbara Bowman are heard, taken seriously, and supported by lawyers and law enforcement whenever they report such encounters.

But what is really needed is for us to come to some consensus on what kinds of behavior we no longer accept, without completely sterilizing our social environments. Then, as bystanders we can gain the conviction to step up and take action when we see or suspect these kinds of behaviors going on right under our noses, rather than looking the other way.

Ultimately, though, the shift will only occur when we stop buying into this notion that we have to ‘play ball’ with powerful people in order to become successful.

If the conviction of formerly ‘immune,’ powerful men like Bill Cosby helps all of us to move towards these distinctions, then this may very well signify a watershed moment in our history.


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