Advocates for survivors of sexual assault worried the decision would prevent victims from coming forward: The mainstream movement relies foremost on survivors’ willingness to “break the silence”; after that, the public’s willingness to believe them. Neither, however, guarantee justice for survivors—and in the context of MeToo, “justice” usually means jail.
By virtue of being a lawyer, Gloria Allred of course holds the view that a conviction for a rapist represents a kind of victory, not just for her client but for society more broadly. Nonetheless, I think she’s right when she says that Cosby’s release doesn’t represent an existential threat to the MeToo movement.
On Monday, she told WNYC that she views it as merely the result of an arcane legal process—not as a failure of feminist activism. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled to discharge Cosby on the grounds that prosecutors had convicted him on charges a former district attorney had previously claimed were “off the table,” according to USA Today. As a consequence, the court stated, Cosby unwittingly gave up his Fifth Amendment right.
“Everyone should know the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania did not decide to vacate the judgment against Mr. Cosby based on their believing women, or not believing women, or based on the evidence,” said Allred, who represented 33 of Cosby’s 60 accusers. “They didn’t say he did it, or that he didn’t do what he is accused of, or was accused of doing. It was strictly a constitutional issue of due process—but not based on believing women or not.”
She also hasn’t noticed a chilling effect on any of her other clients. From her interview with WYNC:
“Not one of them has contacted me and said, ‘We’re not going to testify now because of what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did.’ So, the fact that not one of my many, many clients in my many cases has contacted me and said, ‘Oh, now we’re not going to testify. We’re afraid. Or, it’s meaningless. Or, What’s the point?’ Nobody has asked me that,” Allred said. “If anything, a lot of women are even angrier. Women are empowered in a way they’ve never been before. And I’ve always said empowerment is contagious and we are not going back. ...
“Let’s keep in mind that he was convicted by a jury of his peers of three felonies indecent aggravated sexual assault. And that will forever be part of his reputation. That will be part of his shame. That will be part of his obituary when it is written.”
This is not to say that Cosby’s case isn’t an occasion to rethink the goals of the MeToo movement. Though there is survivor-centered activism that has long rejected carceral “solutions” to sexual assault, many of MeToo’s most prominent advocates seem to tacitly consider criminal convictions a way to measure the movement’s impact. It is also worth considering what we demand of victims, and the little they get in return for their troubles.
But a single man’s conviction can’t make a movement—particularly one that seeks to undo centuries of misogyny and gendered violence. By the same token, one man’s release can’t tear it down either.