Cosby retrial becomes a perfect platform to see how far we have come

 Cosby retrial becomes a perfect platform to see how far we have come
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Bill Cosby’s retrial for drugging and sexually assaulting a former employee of his Philadelphia alma mater, Temple University, resumed. His first court case ended in a mistrial in June 2017, after the jury deliberated for more than 50 hours, but couldn’t agree on a verdict. But, things might be different this time. This second trial comes in the wake of the national #MeToo movement. And, it could change everything.

More than 58 women over five decades have come forward to accuse Cosby of sexual misconduct. Incredible numbers over a wide timespan. And, the stink of such accusations didn’t stick. There was no recourse, no penalties. Shockingly, these were the first allegations that brought a criminal case against Cosby.

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Some may wonder how this is possible. As a psychologist who specializes in researching traumatic stress and treating its survivors, I can tell you it’s complicated. There are many ways perpetrators get away with their behavior.

 

They may cover up their actions or devalue their target. They may reinterpret events, use official channels to give an appearance of justice, and intimidate, bribe, or threaten the individuals or bystanders.  

In addition, until recently, mistreatment and abuse of women has been tolerated in American society, often perpetuated by rape myths (which results in both victim-blaming and perpetrator-exonerating) and other prejudicial and stereotyped beliefs about women. For example, ideas that women are the “weaker” sex — vulnerable and defenseless — fuels the acceptability of sexual violence against this group.

So, what did a girl or woman do prior to the #MeToo Movement? Well, in general, we suffered in silence and doubt. The culture of silence has been deep-seated and particularly pervasive among women in whom rates of sexual assault are elevated (e.g., military, college students). Women were, and to some extent still are, often reluctant to come forward to report abuse. Some were initially in shock and stayed in a numb or frozen state about it, possibly in an attempt not to absorb any more pain. Others were scared or angry, but keep their mouths shut tight, in fear of personal or professional consequences.

One study of women who experienced mistreatment in the workplace found that women generally managed such negative experiences in four stages: being conciliatory, reconsidering, reducing interference and redeveloping balance. Let me take you on a journey through these stages: reflecting on these steps and identifying the progress we have made in the continued quake of the #MeToo movement.

In the first stage, survivors, often women (but not solely) try to do everything they can to ignore the aggression. Survivors deny or minimize the perpetrators’ behavior or make excuses for them. Something like, “I must be imagining things. That couldn’t have just happened.” Or “Oh, he didn’t mean that. He’s not himself today.”  

In this state of survival, women try to accommodate their perpetrator by changing their own behavior. Survivors try to avoid their bullies or perpetrators, running in circles or jumping through hoops to please or act in ways we think are expected from us. We use peacemaking tactics to assuage predators’ egos or cajole their senses.

In Stage 2, survivors scratch their heads and wonder, “Is this really me?” We try to validate our perceptions. We might seek outside sources to check if our perceptions are correct. We may approach our family and friends and persons in authority, from religious leaders to unions or human resources, and ask, “Am I seeing this clearly? Is there something you see that I’m missing? What is going on here? Why is this happening to me?” In this stage, survivors don’t want to aggravate the perpetrator, but we need to know if this is normal, okay, and something that should bother us. Through this process, we come to realize what happened is unacceptable.

Stage 3 typically involves survivors looking for ways to escape, intervene, or stop the perpetration, particularly if it is ongoing. We may choose to keep a low profile in the desperate hope that the perpetration disappears. Some of us get trapped. With limited financial resources, student or home loans, and dependent children, this becomes an all-too-complicated situation.

Some say a prayer and attempt to persevere. In work settings, the rates of sick leave might increase and maybe there are considerations regarding formal complaints or pursue legal options. Regardless, the attempts to stop the perpetration or escape or avoid the physical, emotional, and interpersonal sequelae are prevalent.

But the #MeToo Movement has awakened survivors and catapulted many of them straight into stage 4, perhaps bypassing a prolonged painstaking process of emotional turmoil. Survivors don’t need to doubt themselves anymore. They don’t need to second-guess their interpretations of bad behavior or wonder what they might have done to contribute to it.

They know these awful things happen to others and thus they are not alone. They know that these events have harmful physical and mental health effects in many people’s lives, and feel the impact on their own day-to-day functioning.

Now, survivors are empowered. They decide that harassment and assault will no longer run or dominate their lives. Even the language has changed from referring to sexual assault victims to survivors.

They refuse to be a prisoner, and won’t let the predator occupy all their headspace. Instead, survivors are speaking out and finding a way to get closure and hit a new stride. They are choosing not to live in fear, anger, or resentment. There is an emphatic and loud answer that is shattering the longstanding silence surrounding sexual assault.

In large part, because of #MeToo, survivors and their allies are saying they have had enough. We will not stand for such injustice any longer. We want justice, healing and long-standing culture change.

This is where the Cosby trial becomes a perfect platform to see how far we have come. The jurors in Bill Cosby’s retrial live in this world. Whether unconsciously, subconsciously or of full body and mind, they must have absorbed these new lessons and perhaps the empowerment of sexual assault survivors can empower people to also stand for the rights of others.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.