The Cosby case shows how hard it is for rape victims to be heard

By Sian Norris

Today, Bill Cosby will finally face questions regarding the dozens of accusations made against him of rape and sexual assault. So far, more than 50 women have accused him of sexual misconduct. Many of these women first spoke out about their experiences 30, even 40 years ago. And yet, it has taken until 2015 before their accusations have started to be heard, and taken seriously.

The Cosby case is symptomatic of a wider societal problem around our attitudes to allegations of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of violence against women and girls. That for all those years so many women came forward and were not heard is representative of a culture of disbelief that surrounds accusations of male violence against women and girls. Over and over again, we see the same story. A woman or girl accuses a powerful man of sexual assault. She is disbelieved. She is called a liar. She disappears, silenced. The man goes on to attack other women. When he is finally brought to justice, the women are blamed for not speaking out ‘sooner’.

Just take what is now the most well-known case of serial rape here in the UK. When the Savile story finally broke, many commenters and members of the public wrung their hands, demanding to know why the women hadn’t spoken out before. Repeatedly they asked: why had they waited so long?

The answer to this question was very simple. They had spoken out before. As more details of the story came to light, we heard women tell how, as girls, they had told teachers, nurses, and other people in authority about Savile’s violence. Their tales were ignored. They were scolded for ‘lying’. So they stopped speaking out. They'd heard the message loud and clear: we won't believe you.

Fast forward to the last decade, and we see the same thing happening in Rotherham. Once again, when the Guardian revealed that there were 1,400 victims of rape and sexual abuse between 1997 and 2013, people demanded why the girls hadn’t come forward. And once again, we heard that the girls had – girls like 'Suzie' who went to the authorities and were disbelieved. After being disbelieved once, why would Suzie report it again? Why would she trust the authorities when they had laughed her accusations out of the room? After being disbelieved once, why would Suzie report it again?

The culture of disbelief exists across cases of rape and sexual assault. However, it's perhaps most obviously on display when the accused has some kind of status or power – from celebrity, to being in a position of authority. When these crimes occur, the victim often has to hear their alleged rapist being defended as a ‘good guy’. In the case of Savile, people expressed disbelief that someone who did so much for charity could also be a child rapist. Across the board, we see violent celebrities defended on the grounds they make great art, act well or can kick a football around a field – as if any of these skills are incompatible with being a violent man.

This was perhaps most frighteningly illustrated by the Ched Evans case. After the footballer’s arrest, his supporters repeatedly called his victim a liar and a gold-digger. When he was convicted, the abuse escalated and his victim was named on social media. In the past four years she has had to continually move house and change her identity in order to keep safe from the threats made against her. 

Women who accuse celebrities of rape and sexual assault are not only routinely disbelieved. They also have to see their perpetrators defended and then celebrated in the public arena. Take Mike Tyson, who was sentenced to six years for raping an 18-year-old woman. Today, he’s a cult hero, appearing in mainstream comedy films like The Hangover. Or Chris Brown, who two years after beating up Rihanna en route to the Grammies was once again performing at the ceremony. And then there’s Roman Polanski. Despite being unable to set foot in the USA since being accused of raping a child, he still manages to win Oscars and the plaudits of his peers who refuse to believe that what he did was ‘rape rape’.

This culture of disbelief has a huge impact on how our society deals with rape and sexual assault. Around 85,000 women are raped in the UK every year and there are nearly half a million sexual assaults. And yet, the reporting rate of rape remains at around 15%, and only 6.5% of those reported lead to a conviction.

Is it any wonder reporting rates remain so low, when it’s taken decades for Bill Cosby’s alleged victims to be heard? When Evans' victim was hounded from her home, as his supporters parade the streets wearing Evans masks and carry blow-up sex dolls? When the authorities that are supposed to care for girls call them liars, and force them into a silence that can last for years? 

Is it any wonder reporting rates remain so low when these cases are followed by editorials that question whether there are ‘shades of grey’ around rape, or radio programmes that ask if a woman is partially responsible for the violence committed against her if she’s been drinking? Is it any wonder, when women who report their abuser later have to watch him lauded on stage or screen or footy pitch, cheered on by thousands?

And what does it say about us, when we as a society are so quick to disbelieve women and so quick to welcome back violent men? How seriously can we take male violence against women and girls, when we collude with rapists and domestic abusers by refusing to mention their crimes, and instead offer them acting roles, sporting contracts, record deals and awards?

We don’t know what will happen in the Cosby case. But the next time a story like this one breaks, just as with Savile and Rochdale and countless others, don’t wring your hands and wonder why the women didn’t come forward before. Perhaps they did. And perhaps we simply refused to believe them.

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman and Open Democracy. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on the Kindle. Sian is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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