Published in The Tribune on July 26, 2023
Most of us know Bill Cosby as Heathcliff Huxtable. He is a doctor married to lawyer Clair Huxtable and father of five children. He is a funny, playful character with endearing eccentricity. Everyone loves Cliff, and wishes he could be their father. The Cosby family was aspirational, and The Cosby Show gave us somewhere to be when our own lives, homes and families did not quite manage to bring us joy. Young black people got to see themselves on television in a positive light. Doctors and lawyers, split-level homes, families they could support and the ability to work through anything that came along. Bill Cosby had come to represent all of this. Positive representation of fathers and husbands, visibility of black families, years of family-friendly entertainment and hope for a successful, happy future.
Now we see someone else.
Accusations of rape and other forms of sexual violence against Bill Cosby did not just start in the past few years. This has been happening — and largely ignored — for decades. One of the most recent events was the lawsuit brought by Andrea Constand in 2005 who alleged Cosby had drugged and molested her in 2004. During the process, 12 women made similar allegations and Cosby denied them all. In November 2006, the lawsuit was settled out of court.
In October 2014, the conversation picked up quickly, increasing in volume and reach, after a clip of Hannibal Buress’ stand-up went viral. Buress takes exception to Cosby’s touting of respectability politics. Buress said, “Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby.” Likely due to the wildfire spread of the clip, the Daily Mail ran Barbara Bowman’s rape accusation wherein she called Cosby a monster. From then on, women have been coming forward to share their stories. Cosby’s colleagues have done their best to cast doubt on those claims, swearing his innocence.
Cosby admitted in a 2005 deposition that he put quaaludes in women’s drinks. There is no mystery around the use of drugs and drinks in sexual violence and it corroborates stories that scores of women have shared about their experiences with Bill Cosby. He drugged and raped women. Some remember parts of what happened to them at his hands while others do not.
Last week, Cosby was found guilty of aggravated indecent assault and could face up to ten years in prison. Not yet sentenced, he is free — though confined to his Pennsylvania home — on $1m bail. His legal team is likely to appeal and almost a dozen women have civil suits pending against him. Responses to the verdict vary greatly. Some are celebrating and recognise the #MeToo movement for its role in calling for justice in high-profile cases of sexual violence. Some express their certainty that 60 women lied, and Cosby is innocent. Others pretend to be on a line between the two, claiming they want women to be safe and access just justice, but do not think it is right to send Cosby to jail for a crime white men have committed and evaded prison.
“They are trying to ruin a black man’s legacy,” they say.
“Those women were lying. Their stories are too similar,” they say.
“They definitely lied. Their stories don’t match,” they say.
“Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein are still free, so why does Cosby go to jail?” they say.
We can talk about race. We can talk about how much the US justice system hates black men. We need to talk about the systems — white supremacist and otherwise — that have allowed white men to terrorise women and never have to face the public disgrace and consequences they deserve. We simply cannot have that conversation as a way of excusing or protecting other criminals. We cannot use that conversation to detract from the ongoing conversation about sexual violence, particularly perpetrated by men in positions of power.
We cannot have a conversation about race at the expense of women. It has always been far too easy to forget the black community includes women.
People look at Bill Cosby through Heathcliff Huxtable-coloured glasses. They see the loving husband and father he played on The Cosby Show. They see the weird sweaters, hear the funny jokes and feel the sparks of hope and pride at seeing a happy black family on television. They confuse the character with the actor — the real person, Bill Cosby. They ignore the power dynamic that emboldened Cosby and allowed him to sexually violate women and get away with it for a long time. They see a cultural icon.
Compare the rhetoric of the pro-black anti-woman rape apologists in support of Cosby with his respectability politics campaign that registered high on the self-hatred scale. He framed the issue of racism in the US as a black people problem — one AfricanAmericans created for themselves and can solve for themselves. How? By wearing their pants differently, of course. By changing the way they speak. By giving their children more Anglo names. A few changes in behaviour would be all it took to end racism forever, right?
If you have never heard Bill Cosby’s speeches denigrating black people — especially young black men and parents — start with the “pound cake” speech he made on the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Apply his logic to his situation. He says a black man did not have to get shot if he did not have pound cake in his hand. He did not have to go through these trials if he did not always have quaaludes in his pocket.
Maybe Cosby only got to court because he is black. Maybe the system is rigged. Maybe there is something to be angry about. If so, we need to carefully think about what should make us angry.
Is it that a black man is charged and convicted of a crime of he committed, or that a white man is not charged and convicted of a crime he committed? Do we want to fight for the freedom of black sexual predators, or do we want to fight for justice to be served, regardless of the identity of the predator? We need to deal with our inability or unwillingness to separate people from their work.
R Kelly is not even a discussion in most spaces. He has been known to violate young women and girls for years. Story after story reveals his predation. We are horrified by the accounts of those who get away, but many of are not bothered enough to stop supporting him.
By now, we should all understand that we do not have to take money out of our pockets for him to make it, but just playing a song on YouTube helps to finance his den where the women are cut off from family and friends, must ask to go to the bathroom, are completely subject to his abuse and control. Does this disgust you? Is it changing the way you consume?
How far have we come since the OJ Simpson trial? Think about all you consider before coming to a decision on high-profile cases. Race, gender, age and popularity tend to heavily impact judgment. There are stories we immediately dismiss and positions we feel obligated to take.
It is not easy to consider multiple identities, but we must. We need to find ways to be honest with ourselves about our own biases, learn to value justice, and resist the call to automatic solidarity. People are not always as they seem. They are not their work and they are not what they pretend to be. We have to look at what they do. When it comes to justice, our favourites cannot be exempt.
This was published in The Tribune on May 2, 2018.
I’ve seen and heard about people lamenting the ongoing discussion about women’s human rights specific to our bodies. While it can be exhausting to engage in seemingly endless conversations on a popular topic, or even observe them, it is far worse to be repeatedly violated, taught to accept it, and face attempts to dissuade you from believing your own experience. We have to talk about sexual violence, particularly against women and girls, for many reasons. One of the most obvious is that it continues to happen, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us.
Conversations about sexual violence against women and girls are frustrating. It is emotionally draining for those of us who have experienced it and continue to experience it. There is a burden on us to talk about some of the worst things we have ever gone through, We are expected to participate in story-sharing campaigns, little thought being given to the psychological effects of reliving the trauma, or worrying about who may find out and treat us differently. It makes people uncomfortable — even those who consider themselves “good guys.” The black and white of sexual violence and rape culture scares people to the point that they are desperate to believe and convince others that a gray area exists. There can be no gray area when we are talking about people using their power to exert control over another person’s body. Whatever form it takes, it is a violation without explicit consent.
What is consent?
It’s difficult to address these issues without defining consent. In the simplest of terms, it is permission, a yes, and confirmation of willingness to participate from a person who is over the age of consent, conscious, and sober. Consent cannot be assumed. There can be no guesswork here. Certainty is a must, and that can only exist when an option has been offered, and the other person has been given the opportunity to accept or decline on their own terms. Silence does not count; consent has to be explicit.
Once you have consent, know that it is for the activity and time agreed upon, and remember that consent can end. It is not granted forever, and people can change their minds. You need continuous consent. It is possible to consent to something, start an activity, then decide not to continue. You may not like it if someone does this, but consent is mandatory so you need to accept it.
What isn’t consent?
Consent for one thing does not mean consent for another. You may think one activity “naturally” leads to another, but you need to check in with the person to see if they want to move on to something else. Consenting to kissing is not the same as consenting to kissing followed by digital penetration. Be honest about what you want to do, and respect the person’s right to decide whether or not they want to participate.
It is important that consent is recognized as a necessary step that protects all participants. It is not difficult, and it is not a hurdle. It is not a contest or a conquest. Coercion voids consent. No is no, and no amount of bullying, begging, or wearing down will turn that a no into an enthusiastic, continuous yes. Doing any of these things takes away the person’s choice, and creates a situation where the only answer is yes, and that is not consent. It is a violation on its own.
What is sexual violence?
Sexual violence is a term to describe sexual acts against someone who has not given consent. It’s a spectrum with harassment toward one end and rape at the other. Many people find it difficult to see sexual harassment and rape in the same category, largely because harassment is considered harmless. Street harassment, for example, has been so normalized that some refuse to acknowledge its affects on those experiencing it. An unwanted interaction can begin verbally, and has the potential to escalate to following or physical assault, regardless of the initial response.
Like rape, harassment and every other form of sexual violence is about power — not sex. Conversations about sexual violence are most often derailed by perpetuators of rape culture. These are people who believe the victim is somehow always at fault. They use respectability politics in attempts to put women and girls in our place, and hypermasculinity to excuse men and boys for unacceptable, predatory, criminal behavior. At Hollaback! — a movement formed to end street harassment — we challenge people to think about what could happen in the dark if we excuse harassment as appropriate behavior. Events like Junkanoo and Carnival give us an idea.
Law Enforcement Says
In December 2017, the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) foolishly made a victim-blaming post, warning women to “dress appropriately” to avoid sexual violence at Junkanoo. After significant backlash, the post was deleted. Unfortunately, some saw fit to defend the RBPF, suggesting that sexual violence is a response to certain styles of dress. This, of course, is incorrect, victim-blaming, and suggests the inferiority of the men and boys through perpetuation of the idea that they have no self-control.
Earlier this month, Trinidad & Tobago police took a different approach. Carnival quickly approaching, they advised the public that wining on someone without consent could be considered assault. Rather than addressing women and attempting to restrict their movement or choice of dress, they spoke directly to potential perpetrators. While this was lauded by women’s rights organizations and activists, some took exception the message. In particular, soca artist Machel Montano told a crowd to ignore the police advisory and “find somebody to jam.” In response, Police Public Information Officer ASP Michael Jackman said, “I want to make this clear that is important to respect any female’s right to say no to any physical touching in or outside the Carnival season, and that is the position of the TTPS.”
The police in Trinidad & Tobago clearly have a better understanding of the right to body autonomy, the mandatory nature of consent, and the appropriate group of people to address about sexual violence.
A (Trinidad & Tobago) “wining etiquette” flowchart has been circulating over the past few days. It is meant to make men think about their relationships with the women they want to “jam” on. Yuh know she? How yuh know she? Based on answers to these basic questions, it advises on how to approach her, whether, usually beginning with a face-to-face interaction. It ends with either “Gih she wuk!” or “Cease & desist.”
One part of the flowchart brings the marital rape debate to mind. From the “How yuh know she?” question, if the person chooses “We currently romantically involved,” the result is “Gih she wuk!” This suggests a romantic relationship gives a man access to a woman’s body, as though consent is automatic and perpetual (or lasts as long as the relationship). How is this different from Bahamian legislation where the definition of rape excludes the married rapist and victim? We still have work to do. All of us need to understand that people are not objects, relationships do not give us ownership, and consent is always mandatory. Whether it’s a wine/wuk/dance or a sexual activity, it is necessary to ask. Otherwise, your actions could be on the spectrum of sexual violence. You’re a nice guy? Great. Respect the other person. Ask for consent.
Published in The Tribune on January 24, 2018.
The Sexuality and Online Harassment panel — part of Equality Bahamas’ Women’s Wednesdays series — centered the woman’s body and explored ideas of access, presentation, expectations, and vulnerability.
Erin Green, LGBT+ Advocate
Jodi Minnis, Interdisciplinary Artist
Tamika Galanis, Artist-Scholar
Princess Pratt, Storyteller
For more information on the Women’s Wednesdays event series, like Equality Bahamas on Facebook.