by Kaethe Morris Hoffer - Executive Director at Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE)
But as always I have mixed feelings about a conviction that brings with it the likelihood of long incarceration. While I celebrate that Cosby’s victims may finally be experiencing the sensation of being believed, I don’t take joy in the imprisonment of any human, and I continue to feel urgently that we, collectively, have far to go. Our culture remains so steeped in myths and misinformation about rape, and our criminal justice system is so racist in its application and cruel in its impact, that it strikes me as profoundly naive to regard the incarceration of yet another Black man as a substantial victory in the fight to end sexual violation.
This fight, whose most powerful warriors have often been uncelebrated Black women, has been my primary concern and passion since I was in High School, more than thirty years ago. I was just a teenager when classmates who had lived through rape and other forms of sexual violation began confiding in me, seeking help as they struggled in the aftermath of shattering trauma. Standing (however uselessly) by them, I quickly, and then repeatedly, learned a painful truth that too many survivors discover on their own: most schools, most justice systems, most communities, and even many families, profoundly fail the (mostly) girls and women whose lived experiences give them unwanted expertise in sexual violation. Our society’s status quo privileges men and white people, and individually and collectively, most people seem bewitched by lies, hostile to the truths that victims have long been exposing.
One of the most pernicious lies about sexual violation--I’ve long called it “the monster myth”--posits that rape is rare, violent, and committed exclusively by thoroughly evil men. The monster myth is why most people continue to imagine rape as a violent beating-plus-sex committed only by unusual and irredeemable serial predators, despite conclusive scientific evidence showing it is common, typically accomplished with little ‘violence’, and usually committed by men who spend most of their time engaging in socially acceptable and even appealing conduct. It is profoundly painful to realize that even smart and talented boys and men, ones who are manifestly capable of charm, humor, kindness, and generosity, also engage in many forms of sexual abuse, but it is long past time that people outside of the community of victims and their allies acknowledged this reality.
I find hope and solace in the power of the #metoo movement, founded by Tarana Burke (yet again, a Black woman leading the way). Her activism has proved more powerful than any data, setting a fire which might yet kill the lie that sexual violation is unusual. But the other elements of the monster myth persist, and I am desperate to have people stop expecting that a violent or serial predator lurks behind every #metoo experience.
Many people understandably equate rapists with monsters, because of the monstrous harm rape inflicts, and I am sympathetic to the rage-fueled desire to respond to sexual violation with penalties that are only fit for people whose humanity is invisible. But by insisting that only monsters rape, which we do in part by maintaining the cruelest penalties for rape, our society makes it virtually impossible to hold most perpetrators accountable. Survivors mostly step forward (which they do rarely) without eye-witnesses, physical injuries, or cohorts of fellow victims, while men who rape almost never ‘look’ like monsters, and typically have enough social skills to appear normal. Survivors learn the hard way that reports of sexual violation are treated like accusations that a particular man is a “monster.” If one accuser isn’t followed by others, or if he doesn’t have a previous criminal record, many police, school administrators, and friends end up slinking away, behaving as if her accusation, and not the conduct that it described, was the reprehensible act. Prosecutions of the occasional monster (I don’t dispute this is a moniker Bill Cosby has brought on himself) do nothing for the overwhelming majority of victims. And so even as I view Cosby’s conviction as just, I think it is his consistency with the monster myth, and not the #metoo moment we are in, which made his conviction possible. Serial rapists (especially men who are Black) have always had reason to fear the criminal justice system. Their less prolific brothers, meanwhile (especially those who are white), still have little reason to fear that rape begets consequence.
What we need, and what I believe survivor leaders are directing us toward now, is a movement against sexual violation which embraces anti-racist and anti-sexist criminal justice system reform, while simultaneously and radically expanding the systems and methods by which people who engage in sexual violation can be held accountable for the harm they cause. I am confident that survivors can lead us there if we are only willing to acknowledge the complexity of the wisdom with which most are cursed. Not being blind to what makes a man seem trustworthy in the first place--whether it is standing in a community, social or professional success, a capacity for charm or humor—while also not being blind to the cruelty of his conduct, survivors see sexual violators as they truly are: as complex people capable of better than their worst acts, as well as much worse than their every-day conduct suggests. In a world that wants everything to be simple, with “good guys” and “bad guys” and nothing in between, this is a burdensome and profoundly discomforting vision. But it is also the root of one of the sentiments I have heard from almost all of the countless and diverse survivors I’ve listened to over the last three decades: while they desperately want to be believed, and while they hunger for justice and accountability, they also don’t want to “ruin his life.”
For as long as we cling to simplified notions of who engages in sexually violating conduct, and succumb to the easy temptation of cruel and one-size-fits-all penalties, I fear that our society will continue to hold accountable only those men who come from our society’s most marginalized communities, or engage in the most, or most egregious acts. Current practices fundamentally fail the girls and women (and boys and men) whose requests for justice are not actually demands for cruel retribution, and they are also symptom and cause of sex and race inequality. Fortunately, the manifest power of #metoo and Time’s Up efforts are current proof that the arc of history can be bent towards justice and equality. Incorporating into these efforts a commitment to rejecting the myth that leads us to expect sexual violation only from monsters, may help us create what we desperately need: systems and practices that can hold people appropriately accountable for sexual violation, even as we see and acknowledge their virtues, their humanity, their capacity to do, and be, better than their worst acts.
Kaethe Morris Hoffer is an attorney and the Executive Director at Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), a legal services, prevention, and policy reform organization addressing sexual assault and exploitation.