35 women and #theemptychair. How much progress have we really made?

There is no question they are brave.

Each of the 35 women who spoke in the July 26, 2015 New York magazine article about being assaulted by Bill Cosby put her individual and private experiences into the public forum. Each one told us what happened and how it has impacted her life. And initially each who came forward was faced with skepticism and disbelief.   

I am indebted to all 35 women for their courage to speak out and to keep speaking out until finally they were heard.

Their stories have made me reflect back on those times when victims of sexual assault and rape were routinely told to “be quiet” or “to not rock the boat” or how reporting would “ruin his life” and how she should just “accept the assault and move on.”

These women and the authors of the article make a case for how things have changed for the better. As someone who has spent close to 40 years working to make things better for victims and their families I have to agree – to a point.

 I’d argue that in many situations, we have not made as much progress as we like to think.

Bill Cosby manipulated, drugged, and raped women. He used his prestige, power, and access to do this and he was confident that he would not be held accountable.

Is this so different from what we see today? Alcohol facilitated rapes is a euphemism for situations where a woman (typically but not always) is drugged or "encouraged" to drink so much that she is incapacitated and then raped. The documentary film “The Hunting Ground” and John Krakauer’s book Missoula document instances of campus and alcohol facilitated rape over and over again. The response from the legal system, the university (when this happens on campus), the media, and the public often sounds similar to what the 35 woman heard. “This is a he said/she said case” or “why did you drink so much” or “why didn’t you tell sooner” or “the legal case will be too hard for you to handle.”

We need to do better before we start congratulating ourselves on how far we have come. Here’s my list:  

  • Believe the victim; investigate the perpetrator. Eliminate victim blaming once and for all.

  • Use language that fits the crime. The words that we use in reference to sexual violence influence the way we all perceive the issue. Using language that depicts rape as a consensual sexual experience versus violent act minimizes rape and perpetuates a culture where victims are devalued.

  • Create a culture of equity, respect, and consent so people understand and use affirmative consent. Yes means yes.

  • Engage in healthy relationships.

  • Teach healthy boundaries to our children so children feel in control of their bodies and empowered to speak out if they are harmed.  

We know prevention is possible. We know that the more we talk about sexual violence and the way we react to disclosures of sexual abuse will create a culture that does not accept sexual violence as the norm. The more support we offer victims who come forward, the more victims will come forward knowing they will be believed and supported.


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