In February of 2014, a rape accusation of one of the great patriarchs of the 1980’s resurfaced. News casters and reporters were revisiting Bill Cosby, otherwise known as Heathcliff Huxtable’s past accusations of sexual assault against multiple women. Since 2005, women have come forth alleging that Mr. Cosby violated them. Some of the events stemmed as far back as 1970’s but weren’t brought to light until 2005. Mr. Cosby, a man that many perceive as a jovial, loving, fun father figure has recently been characterized as a “monster” who admittedly gave Quaaludes to women with the intent to have sex with them.
Mr. Cosby, who wrote and directed the Cosby Show, helped propel many young actors into stardom. Names such as Raven Simone, Tempest Bledsoe, Lisa Bonet, Keisha Knight Pulliam and Erika Alexander were among the many associated with the Cosby show and demonstrated further success after the sitcom ended. In addition to the Cosby Show, Mr. Cosby was the face of Jell-O, an endorser of Coca-Cola and recipient of the Presidential Freedom Award of 2002. Fans across the nation were disappointed as the evidence emerged that suggested that Mr. Cosby may indeed be guilty of the charges. Many of his advocates withdrew their support as more information leaked about the rape allegations. Several of the victims accusing Mr. Cosby reported that the rapes occurred at least 1 year prior to reporting it and some of the women alleged that the assaults occurred in the 1970’s. In lieu of the charges that have reemerged, a question that may be posed is: why now? If these women were raped why didn’t they come forth earlier?
Rape survivors often don't disclose
It is not uncommon for rape survivors to avoid disclosing the trauma they endured to professionals and/or police (Patterson, Greeson, Campbell, 2009, Patterson, Campbell, 2010). In fact, rape survivors often turn to informal supports such as friends and family versus making a formal report that could lead to a legal investigation (Patterson, Greeson, and Campbell, 2009). Fear, shame, and embarrassment are among the many feelings that survivors may experience after being raped. The literature has proposed several reasons that survivors avoid disclosure. Research suggests that the survivor’s psychological response impacts the likelihood of seeking formal support. Survivors that felt ashamed or blamed themselves after the rape where less likely to report the trauma (Patterson, Campbell, 2010). Second, the degree or severity of the rape (force, injury) was also found to be related to the prospect of the survivor disclosing the event; survivors that perceived that the rape was not stereotypical were less likely to report it. Third, oftentimes survivors fear that the assailant will retaliate against them and their family members. As a result, the survivor may believe that the legal system can’t protect them against the perpetrator; therefore, police contact is avoided. Lastly, survivors may be hesitant to disclose the abuse as they fear that formal supports may not believe them. Research supports that many survivors are mistreated by the legal system and formal supports. Additionally, negative support can further traumatize survivors and exacerbate symptoms.
If Mr. Cosby did assault the women, his power and status may have added to the survivors’ reluctance in reporting the assaults immediately. Mr. Cosby is a well-known actor, comedian and humanitarian. Many of his fans and promoters continued to support and believe that he was not capable of such behavior until further information was revealed concerning his admittance of providing Quaaludes to women prior to having sex with them.
Though the reasons outlined above are understandable, immediate reporting is essential in apprehending the perpetrator and in decreasing the likelihood of further assaults. Prompt reporting provides the opportunity for police to collect evidence and to interview the survivor while the memories are fresh. Further, survivors that delay reporting are often viewed as less credible or as having an ulterior motive.
Creating a safe environment for disclosure
As a society, the challenge is to provide a safe atmosphere for survivors to disclose rape. Since the research suggests that rape survivors first disclose to informal supports such as friends and family, Ehren et al. 2007 suggests that community education for prospective supports is needed. Programs that dispel the myths about rape, educate the public about sexual assault, and train informal supports on avoiding negative reactions may aid the survivor in coping with the trauma and in seeking out formal assistance. In addition, as mentioned previously, many rape survivors are mistreated by the legal system and formal supports, thus, it is expedient to provide education to legal, medical and mental health professionals to reduce victim blaming and doubting responses. Professionals should also gain training on how to interact with rape survivors in a supportive and empathic manner.
In the case involving Mr. Cosby, if the assaults occurred, many if not all of the factors outlined in this article may have hindered the rape survivors’ immediate disclosure to formal supports. With the implementation of educational programs that places the emphasis on attending to the needs of the survivor, legal, mental health and medical professionals can be instrumental in gaining a speedy disclosure and possibly stop a perpetrator from assaulting others.
Patterson, D., Greeson, M., Campbell, R. (2009) Understanding RapeSurvivors' Decisions Not to Seek Help from Formal Social Systems. Health & Social Work. May2009, Vol. 34 Issue 2, p127-136.
Patterson, D., Campbell, R. (2010) Why Rape Survivors Participate in the Judicial System? Journal of Community Psychology. Mar 2010, Vol. 38 Issue 2, p191-205. 15p
Ahren, C., Campbell, R, Ternier-Thames,N., Wasco, S., Sefl, T (2007), Deciding whom to tell: Expectations and Outcomes of Rape Survivors’ First Disclosures; Psychology of Women Quarterly. Mar 2007, Vol. 31 Issue 1, p38-49. 12p