Bill Cosby, who has been accused of sexual assault or unwanted advances by more than 50 women, has finally been hit with criminal charges in the alleged assault of former Temple University basketball director Andrea Constand. As reported by the New York Daily News:

In announcing the charges against America’s Dad turned America’s Predatory Step Uncle, prosecutor Kevin Steele cited Cosby’s unsealed testimony, new evidence and the matching stories of so many other women.

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“A person in [Pennsylvania] cannot give consent” to engaging in sex, Steele said, perhaps signaling how he intends to win the he said-she said contest about an interaction so long ago between just two people, when all the world knows that with the toll of Cosby’s alleged victims standing at more like 60, the weight of the evidence is actually he said-she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said.

Highlighting the shocking number of sexual assault allegations against Bill Cobsy, on December 31, 2015, the front page of the New York Daily News featured the headline “He Said-She Said, She Said, She Said…” with 50-plus “She Saids” following.

The number of Cosby’s publicly self-identified victims surpassed the 50-plus threshold in summer of 2015. As depicted on the July 26, 2015 cover of New York Magazine, each new woman making allegations is said to be “filling the empty chair,” wherein the empty chair stands as a symbol representing the additional unknown number of Cosby’s victims who have not publicly identified themselves.

Cosby victims

The December 2015 New York Daily News cover is a powerful image, and, much like the New York Magazine’s “empty chair” cover, delivers a blunt commentary on how long Bill Cosby was allowed to carry on assaulting women and what it really looks like when rapists are not held accountable.

Headlines and images like these help serve as a stark reminder of this unfortunate reality, and provide necessary space to engage in a public dialogue about the nature of sexual violence in general, as well as the Cosby case in particular.

However, we should also be aware of an unintentional side effect of the recent media focus upon this dynamic: specifically, that the emphasis on the number of Cosby’s victims – particularly as that number has been used to argue that the sheer number of survivors who are speaking out is proof of Cosby’s guilt – may subtly but certainly reinforce the erroneous cultural expectation that one survivor is not enough to be believed.

The recent increased commentary on the number of Cosby’s victims as proof of his guilt generally consists of variations along the lines of, “you can’t disbelieve 50 people.” Although this sentiment is both accurate and understandable, it is important to remember that one person is enough.  Indeed, those who find proof in numbers would do well to recall the image of the “empty chair,” because the fact of the matter is that even if there is only one victim reporting a rape or sexual assault, that victim should be visualized sitting beside an empty chair.

We know that sexual predators have high rates of reoffending and that serial sexual assault is more common than we’d like to believe. Because rapists and pedophiles are known recidivistic offenders, they frequently leave many victims in their wake. There is almost always, especially without accountability, an empty chair.

Sometimes that chair could be filled by an existing survivor who has not spoken out, for any one of a number of legitimate reasons. Sometimes that chair will be filled by a future victim, after a predator is left to continue to prey, for reasons of institutional indifference.

And if that chair seems compelling sitting beside 50 women, it should seem just as compelling sitting beside one.

Fifty people are difficult to disbelieve. But one person should be just as difficult to disbelieve, especially when we understand the enormous disincentives that any survivor faces in reporting and how many rapes and sexual assaults go unreported for just that reason.  This is critical, and becomes even more apparent when we consider what it means to be the first victim to report, or the only one who ever will.

After all, Bill Cosby has been accused of sexually assaulting more than 50 women over a period of five decades, but so far only one case has resulted in criminal charges. This is due in part to issues relating to too-short criminal and civil statutes of limitations for crimes of sexual violence. But it is also due to the fact that our society is, sadly, one which often disbelieves victims and routinely fails to hold perpetrators and institutions that aid and abet those perpetrators accountable for their crimes. This is evidenced by the low reporting rate for sexual assault, and the even lower rate of arrest and prosecution.

Because not all survivors feel safe reporting, there are almost always victims of serial rapists and pedophiles who do not publicly tell their stories.  And one survivor shouldn’t be obliged to tell his or her story just so that another will be believed. Victims should not be ignored or dismissed until there are more individuals harmed just to satisfy the public desire for overwhelming evidence. Survivors should instead be heard and listened to as a matter of course.

Even when there are multiple victims of the same offender, they are each one. And each deserves to be heard.  For even if just one of Cosby’s victims had been believed, had been heard, or had been listened to earlier, there wouldn’t be as many has there are.

One victim is too many. And one survivor is enough.


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