Recently, The Onion posted this headline: Woman Assaulted By Celebrity Just Needs To Sit Tight For 40 Years Until Dozens More Women Corroborate Story. What it’s referring to, of course, is the Bill Cosby case.
This case seems to be one of the best examples, thus far, of the media and of people treating survivors of sexual assault the right way: by believing them. And yet, this took years of woman after woman coming forward with the same chilling story: Comedian Bill Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted them.
Of course, there are exceptions to every story, but it’s seemingly hard nowadays to come by someone doubting these women who have spoken out against Bill Cosby. When Emma Sulkowicz came forward with her story, however, she was met with disbelief from many news outlets, the most brutal being an article from The Daily Beast where the author interviewed her alleged rapist and made it out to seem as though she was lying.
The media has set narratives for survivors of sexual violence. The narrative people seem most apt to believe is the silent survivor. The one who went right away for a rape kit. The one who went to the police first and not their university. The one who seemed ashamed to speak of their assault. And ones who are backed up by more survivors. This all without acknowledging that survivors deal with their trauma in very different ways. So, when we have someone like Emma Sulkowicz who spoke to her attacker after her assault because she, like many survivors, was in shock, who openly acknowledged her assault and started an art project that would later become a nationwide movement against sexual violence on college campuses, and who went to her university instead of forcing herself to withstand the long, and often unrewarding, police process, she is immediately questioned. Why would they speak to her attacker? Why would she appear to be so open about it? Why allow an institution like a university handle a serious crime like this?
Meanwhile, the Bill Cosby case fits the narrative the media is looking for. These women were silent for years and have finally come forward. There have been over 35 women who have come forward and they’ve all been able to corroborate the story. This is no problem; it’s wonderful that these women have been able to share their stories in a less questioning environment and here at VocaLady, we believe and support them. The image of 35 of them on the cover of New York Magazine was moving and needed to be seen. And yet, it all comes too little, too late.
Too often, the media seems caught up in the possibility of false accusations without considering that the likelihood of that is so small. While Emma did appear on the cover of Time and many articles have been written telling her story, we still have writers doubting her. News media outlets such as Fox News and The Daily Beast can absolutely be criticized for their coverage of Emma’s case, as they worried about the young man whose life was “uprooted” by being accused of sexual violence rather than the victim herself. Remember Steubenville, where, when a young girl was raped by two men while unconscious and filmed, the media decried how the lives of these two “promising” men were ruined. Not only does this excuse the attackers’ actions, it also casts doubt on the accuser. They were “promising” after all. While journalists are trained to be objective, this doubt turns into a field of victim-blaming and continues to force a narrative on survivors of sexual violence. Doubting Emma for her behavior after her assault is victim-blaming and that is not fair journalism.
Of course, the later debunked Rolling Stone article is of no help and, in fact, raises concerns that survivors will be less likely to speak up about their experiences with so much doubt in the air. Again, the writers for Rolling Stone felt they had to fit a narrative, one of a terrible, shocking story of campus rape, without consulting the statistics: not all rapes are violent and many are committed by acquaintances and even friends. According to the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN), “47% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance.” Thus, they didn’t have to fit a certain narrative to be representative of sexual assault survivors. Rather, there is no narrative as each situation is different. It’s also important to note that even after the article was concluded as false, the police investigating the case did say that they believe something terrible happened to Jackie, a story corroborated by her friends who spoke about their portrayals in the story.
Again, how Bill Cosby’s accusers are portrayed in media coverage, such as with the recent New York Magazine cover, is important and great to see. However, it took a long time to reach this point and it seemed that only when several women had come forward, the narrative clicked — and remember, Bill Cosby was (yes, was) a prominent, well-liked celebrity, making belief that much harder to attain. We need to see less victim-blaming doubt of those who come forward as survivors of sexual violence and more treatment of their stories with care. We need to begin believing survivors of sexual violence, especially within the media community, otherwise other survivors may be discouraged from coming forward. We need to believe the first survivor. We need to reject the narrow narratives set forth for survivors of sexual violence and accept that their stories will come in many different forms. We need to give the storytelling powers to these survivors, solely. We need to critically view not the survivor, but the person they’ve accused. Only then can the media stop contributing to rape culture and give survivors of sexual violence the voice that they deserve.