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27 April 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 11:35am

The Bill Cosby conviction is a #MeToo milestone, but too many women still aren’t believed

It takes a chorus of female voices standing up to just one powerful men for allegations to be taken seriously. 

By Sophie McBain

Speaking outside the Pennsylvania courtroom on Thursday, the actress Lili Bernard, who says she was drugged and raped by Bill Cosby in the nineties, described the 80-year-old comedian’s conviction as a “victory for womanhood” and a “victory for all sexual assault survivors”. Few women would not want to celebrate her victory, or to claim it for their own. After all, most of us have kept a private tally of what we might now term our #MeToo moments, whether they are awkward incidents we quickly shook off or memories of violence that will forever linger.

The guilty verdict against Cosby, who could be sentenced to up to thirty years in prison for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman at his home in 2004, has been heralded as a “milestone for the #MeToo era” – but, like any milestone, it offers not just a measure of progress but also a sense of how much further we have to go.

It is no coincidence that the two most high-profile convictions following the #MeToo movement pitted dozens of women accusers against a single, predatory man. In January, the former doctor for the American Olympic gymnastics team, Larry Nassar, was convicted of sex crimes after hundreds of women accused him of sexual abuse. Over 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault, but statute of limitation laws meant that only one charge could be brought to criminal trial.

In both instances, the abuse allegations span decades. The women seeking justice against Cosby and Nassar were dismissed or ignored, but eventually they found their strength in numbers.

Over the course of his career, several of Nassar’s victims reported his abuse to their parents, their university or their coaches, but their allegations were dismissed or not acted on.

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When Andrea Constand, a former basketball player who was once mentored by Cosby, first reported her sexual assault to the police, the actor was not charged after the district attorney ruled there was “insufficient credible and admissible evidence”. The initial trial against Cosby in 2017 ended in a mistrial because the jury could not reach a verdict. At that time, just one of Cosby’s alleged victims was allowed to testify in court alongside Constand.

In the most recent case, five women testified alongside Constand – and this undoubtedly added weight to her testimony, despite the defence team’s aggressive tactics.

How many female voices should it take to successfully challenge that of one man?

Constand told the court how the star of The Cosby Show, whom she once considered a friend, offered her blue pills that she thought were herbal medicine, and that soon after she took them she fell unconscious. “I was kind of jolted awake and felt Mr. Cosby on the couch beside me, behind me, and my vagina was being penetrated quite forcefully, and I felt my breast being touched,” she said. “I was limp, and I could not fight him off.”

Cosby’s lawyers described her as a “pathological liar” and a con-artist hoping to cheat the actor out of millions. They smeared the women who testified alongside her as promiscuous or publicity-seeking failed starlets.

The tactics are not unusual, sexual assault survivors know that in court their character, their dress sense, even their sexual history can be as much on trial as that of their accuser.

Between 2012 and 2016, the number of rapes reported to the police in England and Wales doubled to 23,851. Prosecutors attributed this increase to recent high-profile cases, including against our homegrown former “national treasure” Jimmy Savile, which have emboldened victims to come forward. But, during that period, the conviction rate fell – to just 7.5 per cent.

A real test of whether the aspirations of the #MeToo movement are being reflected in the courts will be when this shamefully low conviction rate rises, and when women who accuse men of rape can feel confident that their testimony will be accorded sufficient weight in court. Then we can celebrate a victory for womanhood, without reservation.

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