There’s been a lot of buzz recently over “feminism” and if the time has come to resign the word or if we even need to focus efforts solely on ensuring women equal rights and opportunities. Well, this self-identified feminist mom of two is here to tell you that yes, yes we do still need feminism. I’ll use the most recent (certainly won’t be the last) cultural example to illustrate my point– Bill Cosby.
I’m frustrated today (notice I didn’t use the word angry, definitely don’t want to be accused of being an “angry feminist”, they’re the worst). I’m frustrated that a deposition from 2005, in which Bill Cosby answered yes to the question, “When you got the quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?”, was released today and appears to finally be enough evidence in the court of public opinion to make him guilty. It wasn’t enough to criminally prosecute him though… the District Attorney in that particular case cited a lack of evidence and would not bring criminal charges. That happens ALL the time.
For those who aren’t aware or are unsure of the distinction, there are two separate types of law that can be used to address sexual assault, criminal law and civil law. When a woman is sexually assaulted and reports to the police the sexual assault is determined to be a “crime against the state” and as such, she becomes a witness in the case and the prosecutor (aka. District Attorney) has the authority to pursue charges or not. In criminal law, the accused (Bill Cosby) can only be found guilty if it is shown that he has committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt”. So, if the District Attorney in the above Bill Cosby case had decided to actually bring criminal charges, Cosby’s statement still wouldn’t have proved he committed a sexual assault, it would only prove that he bought quaaludes.
The criminal law burden of proof isn’t really designed to address sexual assault, which is often committed without witnesses. And, more often than not, the evidence can be used against the victim if the accused argues that she consented. Which is exactly what Cosby did. In a 2005 ABC News story, a source close to the investigation said they were trying to determine whether it was consensual, and that same District Attorney publicly commented that the victim’s “failure to disclose in a timely manner and contacts with the alleged perpetrator after the event are factors that weigh toward Mr. Cosby.”
So, after a woman has been shot down by the criminal law option, her only legal course of action left is through civil law. In civil law, the victim must obtain her own lawyer and, whereas with criminal law the punishment is potential jail time, in civil law the punishment is compensation, usually financial. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority (more than 95%) of civil cases in the United States end in a pre-trial settlement. Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual assault cases, a pre-trial settlement isn’t seen as the common practice that it is, but is rather viewed as a confirmation of a very loud and persistent cultural narrative that women lie about rape in order to scam men for money. Which is just what was said about the women who have accused Bill Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them.
In 2013, I wrote a blog about attending the sentencing in a criminal case where the sexual assault victim was a local jogger raped during her morning run. The experience in court was horrifying for a variety of reasons, but in particular because of the way the victim was treated by the Judge and Prosecutor and because the punishment was laughable. As recently as June, Cosby’s lawyer argued that his admission should be kept private because “it would be terribly embarrassing for this materials to come out.” I know what’s embarrassing, a Country where more than 20 women can have almost an identical experience of being drugged and sexually assaulted, and the accused has never once been convicted.
Until we fix, at a minimum, the legal system, I say feminism is here to stay and I pledge to continue to work to challenge institutions, cultural attitudes and norms that allow men like Bill Cosby to continue to sexually assault our daughters, sisters, mothers and friends.