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Understanding “Cosby: The Women Speak”

By Alissa Mailen Perrotto

Last night A&E aired a special featuring interviews with more than a dozen of Bill Cosby’s 50 alleged victims of sexual assault. The general consensus from the special was that it was difficult to watch, and the commentary surrounding it made it even harder. Let’s spend some time unpacking that conversation. There has been a firestorm of victim-blaming attacks in response to the allegations against one of television’s favorite TV dads. It’s hard to understand how someone with so much talent and widespread appreciation could commit such violent acts.

The reality is that people who commit sexual violence are often trustworthy, likeable people. It’s one of the ways that they are able to target and manipulate potential victims into situations of opportunity to commit violence. This doesn’t mean that you have to completely abandon all appreciation for the Cosby Show and think of Dr. Huxtable as a monster. Instead, understanding perpetration of sexual violence is a BOTH/AND discussion. We can still appreciate the good that a person has done in their life, AND recognize that they can also do bad things.

This also contributes to our understanding of why people who are raped often react in a way that can be difficult to understand. When someone you trust commits a violent act against you, it’s difficult to make sense of that. Self-blame, shame, and questioning what really happened are all ways that people make sense of their experiences. It can take a long time for someone to finally call it rape. Some people never get there. It doesn’t change the fact that another person committed nonconsensual sexual acts against them. Survivors of sexual violence can disclose immediately, or they can wait. They can wait days, weeks, months, or even years. Some people will never talk about what happened to them. Who could blame them? We live in a culture that blames people for the abuse they experienced and shames them for talking about it.

A lot of the negative commentary posed questions. Why not fight back? Why not report to the police? Why don’t you remember more details? So let’s transition into talking about some brain science. The answer is that sexual violence is a trauma. When a person attacks your body in this way, your brain and body goes into survival mode. Adrenaline bursts can do three things: 1. Give you strength to fight the attack off. 2. Give you speed to escape. 3. Completely freeze your body and make it impossible for you to move, speak, or resist. Again people, this is a chemical response. That means you don’t get to pick which one your body gives you. It also means that the way that your brain processes sensory and cognitive information is different. Instead of remembering things in chronological order or logical details, your memories of the experience can be patchy, come in waves, or seem out of order. For more information on the neurobiological response to sexual violence, consider watching Dr. Becky Campbell’s NIJ interviews on the topic. There really is a huge body of research showing that this is true and explaining some of the questions posed in the aftermath of these interviews. What we ultimately have to understand is that people rarely lie about experiencing sexual violence. False reports are extremely uncommon. People also face barriers to making reports. They may doubt that they will be believed, fear police mistreatment, or simply decide that they don’t want to relive it over and over again. Disclosing sexual violence takes great strength and courage. It’s important that we honor these stories and believe the people telling them. That is what will really lead to a happier ending in this case.