Cosby’s trial started this week, and even though he has been accused by a multitude of women of varying degrees of sexual misconduct, Amanda Constand’s case is the only criminal case to be brought against him. 

The outcome and response of every sexual violence case that is reported and/or taken to trial influences how safe survivors feel to speak up and report their own experience. Cosby’s trial is particularly significant because he is a high-profile, well known character and the way we talk about it can have a powerful domino effect on how we perceive sexual assault. For all the reporters out there and public in general: Even though the defense is throwing some victim-blaming statements,  let's all use our best judgement to identify these comments. 

Breaking down a few points that have been brought up during this case shows how they affect rape-culture and feed some misconceptions people may still have about sexual assault. 


On reporting: 

According to several research there is only a small percentage of false reporting, between 2 – 10%[1] [2] [3]. The rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, or a weak understanding of sexual assault. Misconceptions about false reporting rates have direct, negative consequences and can contribute to why many victims don’t report sexual assaults.[4] 

Yet, Cosby’s defense lawyer Brian McGonagle said the following during his opening statement: “The only thing worse than sexual assault, was a false accusation of sexual assault,”. He went on by saying: It was the jury’s job to “right a wrong” for Cosby, to “protect a man from the destruction of the rest of his life.”  

Unfortunately, it so hard for society to believe survivors.  Why are we so quick to judge and label them as liars with alternate motives? Going public with a sexual assault accusation isn’t fun. The reality is that pursuing legal action is likely to outweigh whatever settlement the accuser is unlikely to even receive. On the contrary, there is so much to lose; their privacy, professional reputation, personal relationships, and financial and emotional resources. When people dream of “fame”, does anyone really dream of being a famous victim of sexual assault?

 

On the story 

Here’s the thing though. No one can predict how a person will act after experiencing sexual trauma. According to Lisak [5] the memory of a traumatic experience can be encoded in our brain in a different way than a regular experience. The flood of stress hormones dulls the frontal cortex, responsible for rational planning and memory, so it’s not unusual that the memories of a traumatized person are often fragmented, out of sequence and filled with gaps. They may remember some very specific details of the experience like texture of the rapists’ t-shirt or smell of cologne but completely block or forget other details. The fact that survivors can later on remember something they didn’t earlier is not evidence of fabrication, it is just the result of how our brain encodes information during a trauma.

McGonagle sought to discredit Constand as he pointed to inconsistencies in the account of the evening she gave to police.

 

Delayed Reporting 

Sexual assault victims can experience a range of emotions that make it difficult for them to report abuse. Fear of retribution, fear of not being believed, fear of having to continuously relive a trauma, to name a few. Several victims who decide to ultimately come forward and speak up, will initially delay due to neurobiological and psychological responses to their assault like not remembering all the details clearly as we discussed in the previous point. They may also worry about how could it affect their family or friends [6] especially if the perpetrator is a family member [7]. In addition, going through the medical exam or rape kit,can be a struggle for victims.  

In the case of Cosby, several people, including the defense attorneys have also questioned why Constand’s waited a year to report the alleged assault to police. Understanding victim behavior and its social context is critical to understanding the obstacles victims face in reporting.  


Communication with Perpetrator 

Sometimes, victims maintain cordial , or even friendly, relationships with the person who has sexually assaulted them. That isn’t evidence that the assault didn’t occur. For example if the perpetrator is already a partner of the victim or family member. When victims haven’t processed what happened to them or see it as normal and lastly fear when the perpetrator has power over them. Victims react to sexual assault in a variety of ways, and health professionals stress that there is no “correct” reaction. 

Defense attorneys pointed out that records showed 72 calls between Cosby and Constand in the year between the incident and the call to police. As mentioned above there could be a number of reasons behind this. 

Let’s remember that sexual assault is about power and control. When you are accusing a powerful public figure of sexual assault, especially one who is recognized as “America’s Dad” by millions of Americans ,  you can bet that you’ll also be facing harassment and the disbelief of people who can’t conceive that their hero could also be a rapist. And that reaction can happen if the rapist is your college campus’ favorite football player or the boss at your job. 

This most likely won’t be the last sexual assault case we’ll hear in the news. While we may not have the power to decide who is guilty or not in the court room, we, the public, make judgments based on all the information we have at our disposal. When survivors come forward with their stories in a society that systematically shames victims of sexual abuse, it is our job as part of this society to believe and support survivors in the hope we can change this victim-blaming narrative.

 


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REFERENCES: 

[1] Lonsway, K. A., Archambault, J., & Lisak, D. (2009). False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault. The Voice, 3(1), 1-11. Retrieved from the National District Attorneys Association: http://www.ndaa.org/pdf/the_voice_vol_3_no_1_2009.pdf 

[2]Lisak, D., Gardinier, L., Nicksa, S. C., & Cote, A. M. (2010). False allegations of sexual assault: An analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence Against Women, 16, 1318-1334. doi:10.1177/1077801210387747  

[3]Heenan, M., & Murray, S. (2006). Study of reported rapes in Victoria 2000-2003: Summary research report. Retrieved from the State of Victoria (Australia), Victoria Police: http://www.police.vic.gov.au/retrievemedia.asp?Media_ID=19462 

[4]Archambault, J. (2005, Winter). So how many rapes are false? STOP Newsletter. Retrieved from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape: http://www.pcar.org/sites/default/files/STOP_2005_False_Reporting.pdf 

[5] Lisak, D. (2002) The Neurobiology of Trauma 

[6] Campbell, R. (1998). The community response to rape: Victims’ experiences with the legal, medical, and mental health systems. American Journal of Community Psychology, 26, 355-379. Retrieved from: http://vaw.msu.edu/core_faculty/rebecca_campbell/Articles/Campbell_%281998%29.pdf  

[7] Campbell, R., & Raja, S. (1999). Secondary victimization of rape victims: Insights from mental health professionals who treat survivors of violence. Violence and Victims, 14, 261-275.

 


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