On Wednesday, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge ruled that because of a 2005 handshake agreement with a prosecutor assuring that Bill Cosby would never be charged with drugging and raping Andrea Constand—an assurance that came before 60 women publicly accused Cosby of the same crime—Cosby is free to go home. The case can never be retried.
Unlike the assurances Cosby received, there are no promises for his victims and women like them—not from the police, prosecutors, or the American legal system. In order to have their cases even considered, women like Constand, along with the five other women who were allowed to testify at Cosby’s trial, must “come forward.” That coming forward means repeating the details of the worst moments of one’s life ad nauseam to doubting detectives for the chance to tell it to prosecutors worried only about what a failure to convict will do to data around the department’s wins. If the rapist is notable enough, the victim might once again give intimate details of a painful personal violation to the media so the public can form opinions about the veracity of those details. In very rare cases, a victim gets to tell the story of being forced to have sex against their will to a jury, who will debate that story once again. And after this person who has already survived rape or sexual assault relives the agony of that experience dozens, if not hundreds of times for audiences who typically do not care, do not believe, or some combination of both, in order to earn the right to publicly accuse her assailant of a crime, that assailant will then hire an attorney paid to say out loud what our country’s useless criminal justice system implies: This person is telling this story for attention.
During Cosby’s trial, one of his lawyers, Kathleen Bliss, described the five accusers who came forward to support Constand’s claims that Cosby had drugged and assaulted her with their own identical claims as attention seekers. Heidi Thomas was a fledgling actor in her early 20s when she says that Cosby flew her to Reno, told her a monologue from a drunk character he’d suggested might sound better if she had a drink, then offered her a drugged glass of wine and assaulted her. Bliss countered in her closing arguments that telling this story was Thomas’s chance at “living the dream.” Lisa Lotte-Lubin said the exact same thing happened in Vegas, and Bliss countered that she just wanted “to be a part of it,”—it, in this case, is having her name forever, inextricably tied to her rape.
Likewise, in her defense of her client, convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, Donna Rotunno suggested in the days leading up to his conviction that the 80 women who accused her client potentially anticipated their own rapes, hoping they might be a springboard to attention: “When you’re put in circumstances that are questionable or negative or you don’t want to be in or you think this is the only way that I’m going to get the job, we know that that’s ridiculous,” she told The Daily. Alan Dershowitz, hoping to deflect attention from the rape allegations leveraged by Jeffrey Epstein accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre also fell back on the only defense an accused rapist has: his victim wants this attention.
But in these high-profile cases, attention is the one weapon the accusers have against wealthy men who can and do throw infinite resources at attorneys. For sexual assault victims in less high-profile cases, the chances of getting anyone to care enough to prosecute are abysmally low. According to RAINN, for every 1,000 sexual assaults that occur in the U.S., just 310 are reported to the police. Of those reports, just 50 result in an arrest. Of those arrests, just 28 rapists are convicted. Of those convicted rapists 25 go to prison, where they stay for an average of about 11 years. If the notion of crime is a man-made concept, the crimes a society actually punishes says a lot about who is valuable. In America, rape victims have virtually no value, if any at all.
Along with attention, the popular narrative states that rape accusers want money. Constand had already settled a civil suit with Cosby when criminal charges were brought, a fact that came up in the case that would eventually set Cosby free. Seven of the dozens of Cosby accusers have since received payouts from his insurance company, not the actor himself. Likewise, Weinstein’s victims will split a pittance following his conviction and bankruptcy proceedings. But with legal fees for these highly-publicized and much-litigated proceedings and the fact that a sexual assault generally costs the victim around $122, 461, no one is getting even a sliver of the dazzling wealth enjoyed by the rapist as recompense for their rapes.
Major news outlets are calling the three-to-10 year sentence Bill Cosby received the first conviction of the #MeToo movement. What then is the overturning of that sentence in the half-decade of story after story of assault, harassment, and abuse with no real new recourse for survivors? After five years of non-stop attention, it remains to be seen what, if anything, all this attention wins besides backlash and, now, Bill Cosby’s freedom.