I can’t quite believe that I’m typing these words. And judging by the stunned reactions to the news, I’m not alone. But Bill Cosby, for decades a beloved entertainer and an avatar of family values, has been convicted on three counts of sexual assault by a Pennsylvania jury (and a majority male jury, at that). Our surprise speaks to the heights from which Cosby fell but also to a widespread pessimism about the American justice system’s ability to secure convictions in sex-crime cases. That Cosby actually faces up to 10 years in jail for each count ought to signal, if not the certain arrival of a new day, the possibility of a very different future.
Many of our contemporary conversations about sexual assault are animated by an underlying despair about the legal system, and that’s often a rational response to the facts. Rape kits, even from cases involving the alleged sexual assault of children, go untested — and that’s if they’re not destroyed. Some police officers take advantage of loopholes that don’t prohibit them from having sexual contact with people they arrest, allowing them to manufacture a flimsy facade of consent. Famous and influential men are acquitted in child pornography cases, leaving them free to allegedly operate sex cults. A judge hands down a six-month sentence even in a rape case where he acknowledges that “there was both physical and devastating emotional injury inflicted on the victim.”
This profound lack of faith that the legal system will work the way it is supposed to when the crime is a sexual one doesn’t just influence the tone of our debates. It also has an impact on what we see as viable solutions to sexual violence. Women rely on whisper networks rather than the police, even when we know these networks can’t reach all potential victims. Students and advocates have relied on Title IX to provide a resolution in campus sexual assault cases, often with unsatisfactory results for both alleged victims and assailants. And as the #MeToo moment has revealed, sexual assault victims reconcile themselves to the unsavory process of putting a price on their own trauma, accepting financial settlements from their alleged attackers and the nondisclosure agreements that come with them because they believe there is no realistic prospect of prosecution and conviction.
The case against Cosby was unique in ways that both made it challenging to convict him and gave prosecutors an incentive to pursue him diligently. Cosby’s fame gave him a measure of protection for years, but it also ultimately drew attention to the dozens of allegations against him, and to a culture of celebrity immunity. Andrea Constand’s accusation that Cosby drugged and molested her described events from 2004, which meant that the statute of limitation had almost run out by the time charges were filed, yet also lent the case a sense of urgency. And the horrible fact that Cosby had gone free for so long meant that he was able to allegedly attack other women — but it also meant that those women were available to testify about what they said was a pattern of Cosby’s behavior.
The Cosby verdict may not change our sense of what is possible immediately. It will not reform every police department, test every rape kit or change the perceptions that every potential juror brings to the courthouse when summoned to duty. But if Bill Cosby can finally be convicted of sexual assault, then every victim, every cop, every crime lab and every prosecutor should know that while the cases before them might be difficult, they are not impossible. That’s the difference between stagnation and change, between despair and, at long last, hope.