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Cosby verdict signals shift in attitudes about sexual assault

A version of this post originally was published in LNP.

Monumental. Inspirational. Symbolic. A victory for survivors of sexual abuse and yet still a prime example of the work left to do to end sexual harassment, abuse and assault in our communities.

Yes, it can be all of the above.

The conviction Thursday of Bill Cosby not only provided justice to Andrea Constand, whose experiences led to the three charges of aggravated indecent assault on which the comedian will be sentenced, but it is also a symbolic victory for scores of other women who finally felt heard and believed.

Moments of celebration at the Montgomery County Courthouse and beyond illustrated the magnitude of the outcome for so many survivors who for years had been told that their experiences didn’t matter. Who for years heard that their cases would not be prosecuted. Who for years were shamed for coming forward.

This case feels like a turning point — a vindication for all those who felt powerless.

A prevalent problem

We know how difficult it was — the courage, bravery and tenacity it took — for Constand and the other victims who were sworn in to testify and share their experiences.

And we understand the burden countless others are carrying silently inside themselves.

We also know that sexual assault is a serious and prevalent problem that has a lasting impact on individuals, families and communities. Trauma impacts how those who experience sexual assault and violence respond, process and recall memories, and how they integrate the experience into their lives.

Guilt, shame, self-blame and denial are all common feelings for survivors to experience, and this is underscored by society, which too often holds the victim responsible for the sexual assault. But that did not happen in the Cosby retrial.

That feels like a beacon of hope for others who wish to share their experiences, seek justice and hold their offenders accountable. A turning of the tide.

The #MeToo factor

On the heels of the #MeToo movement, it would be easy to point to the attention as the reason the jury delivered a guilty verdict for Cosby.

In reality, it’s still too early to know what effect, if any, the #MeToo movement had on the trial.

But here’s what we do know.

Constand was believed, her experiences validated. That is a monumental moment, one that feels like a possible shift in the understanding of sexual harassment, abuse and assault.

In this trial, the jury did not fall for the age-old tactics of victim-blaming or “slut-shaming.”

The defense attorneys, led by Tom Mesereau and Kathleen Bliss, banked their entire case on the jury believing misconceptions of how victims respond to trauma and act after abuse. They painted survivors who shared their truths as money- and fame-hungry liars, immoral, promiscuous women, addicts — anything that would mask the abuse perpetrated by Cosby.

Their attempt to impugn the credibility and character of the six victims who testified in this case was an attack on every person who has come forward to finally speak truths about sexual victimization. These comments went far beyond the standard reliance on the false stereotypes that have been used for centuries to discredit women who report sexual violence.

Sexual violence realities

In fact, false allegations of sexual violence are rare. Further, discrepancies or gaps in a survivor’s story can often be due to the trauma of experiencing abuse. The perpetuation of these stereotypes is a major facet of the culture of sexual violence, and prevention will not be achieved until these stereotypes are corrected in the public understanding.

It was an outrage to see Cosby’s defense team compare the #MeToo movement to lynchings, McCarthyism and witch hunts.

None of it worked. Not this time.

While the guilty verdict is inspiring, one case — as high-profile as it may be — does not alone change decades of inadequate response to sexual abuse.

The sense of a shift in how we view sexual assault, believe survivors and hold offenders accountable can be cemented in our culture when we recognize that we all have a role to play in preventing sexual harassment, abuse and assault.

We know there is still more to talk about, more change to inspire, policies to improve and communities to protect.

Statute of limitations

It’s clear that the statute of limitations in sexual assault cases in Pennsylvania and beyond should be extended or eliminated. The Cosby retrial illustrates the gap in our laws where ample evidence to deliver a conviction is available, even many years after a crime has been committed. Five other survivors testified to their experiences of assault at the hands of Cosby, but the time to seek justice had already expired for them.

Thanks to advances in technology, which likely will lead to better evidence preservation, we know that it is possible for an effective case to be delivered even after a long period of time has elapsed.

>The good news is that Cosby’s actions have already inspired states such as California, Colorado and Nevada — where credible victims had come forward — to extend or eliminate the statute of limitations in sexual assault cases.

Pennsylvania lawmakers should follow suit to protect our loved ones.

Keep survivors central

We must consistently hold those who inflict harm accountable regardless of their power, fame, talents or influence. And we must keep the needs of survivors central. Often, offenders are our co-workers, friends and family — folks we know, love and trust. Though difficult to accept, we must understand that they may do positive things at work, home or in our communities while also behaving in abusive and harmful ways.

And most importantly, we must believe survivors when they share their stories, whenever they decide the time is right to share. This sounds simple. But too often victims must defend their clothes, behaviors and even the time they took to come forward when they finally decide to share their traumatic experiences.

Together, we can create more than a feeling of success. We can end sexual harassment, abuse and assault.