Yesterday, Bill Cosby’s conviction for sexual assault was overturned after he served less than three years, as a result of a ‘process violation’ by the prosecution. Cosby was one of the highest profile cases in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and his imprisonment had been celebrated by many survivors of sexual violence. In a world in which it’s never been harder to secure a rape conviction, what impact can these kind of high profile cases have on survivors?
‘It’s been hard at work hearing colleagues speculating about the case’
For those struggling to process their own experiences, high profile cases – especially those that fail to secure a conviction – can be immensely difficult reminders. “Without a shadow of a doubt this will trigger people,” says author and childhood sexual abuse activist Emma Jane Taylor. “This could cause people to go back into their shell and may trigger memories, nightmares, PTSD or dissociation.”
As well as shock and sadness, an overriding feeling for many survivors is one of anger. “When we hear words like ‘process violation’ [the explanation for Cosby’s release] this turns the stomachs of many of us who have been campaigning for decades and trying to reach out to those who are waiting for that moment and the space to feel safe enough to come forward and have their voices heard,” says Dave Sharp, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and campaigner.
Aside from processing those painful emotions, there can also be a more subtle day-to-day challenge — dealing with the unfiltered opinions of other people, who might not be aware of a survivor’s own experiences. “High profile cases often mean lots of uninformed discussions, which can be really hard, however prepared you are,” says Claire, a survivor. “This has often happened at work, where colleagues have speculated about the cases, seeing not guilty or not proven verdicts as evidence complainants have lied, or believing that accusations are politically motivated. Just hearing the way this is discussed can be quite challenging and it can be difficult to frame appropriate responses in a work environment, especially without disclosing any personal experiences or betraying how upsetting this is.”
But for those working in the field, such as Madeleine Black and Emma Jane Taylor, both survivors who are now authors and activists, this event, while frustrating, has only added fuel to their fires. “It makes me feel sick, and I actually wanted to cry when I heard, but it also makes me determined,” says Madeleine. “I found my voice from someone else speaking out, and I now use my platform to help others find theirs. Courage is contagious. We have to use public pressure to bring about change.”
“It spurs me on,” agrees Emma Jane. “We need to educate, raise awareness and give knowledge to young people.”
‘People often refer to these cases as a reason for not reporting’
It’s no secret that the UK’s rape prosecution rates are at an all-time low, which can understandably deter some survivors from contacting the police or pressing charges. Add to this high profile cases that don’t result in prosecutions, and it’s no wonder that many feel silence is the safest option.
“When cases aren’t successful it probably makes people think twice about reporting,” says Marilyn Devonish, who was sexually abused growing up. “You might feel: why would I want to go through that without much financial resource behind me, when it could all fall apart, especially when these cases often feel ‘my word against your word’.”
When even a high profile case involving numerous survivor testimonies falls apart, it can make slim odds seem all but impossible. “The overall message that I take from these stories is that even when we do everything right, when we have a case that everyone knows is real and that we can prove, when the chips just happen to fall exactly right, and some semblance of justice occurs, we can’t bank on it being real,” says Kate*, who was sexually assaulted and raped on several occasions, and is supporting her daughter who is also a survivor of sexual violence. “It can all just be thrown back out again if someone shakes the right hand at the right time. And I absolutely know that that is the message my daughter is absorbing, however openly we talk about it.”
Cosby was released after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out his 2018 conviction on charges of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004, finding that prosecutors violated Cosby’s rights by apparently reneging on a previous promise not to charge him. Cosby tweeted upon his release maintaining his innocence:
'I have never changed my stance nor my story. I have always maintained my innocence.
'Thank you to all my fans, supporters and friends who stood by me through this ordeal.
'Special thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for upholding the rule of law.'
It’s not hard to see how Cosby’s release could lead to lower rates of reporting to the police. “High profile cases reach a wider audience and tend to be at the front of people’s minds. They often refer to these kind of cases as a reason for not coming forward,” says Lucy Nevitt, co-founder ofthe Gemini Project, a non-profit group aiming to end sexual violence through advocacy and campaigns. “It’s damaging, 100 per cent. And then they end up reading the comments beneath articles and see people saying: ‘Cosby is innocent’, but of course that’s not necessarily the case, he got off on a technicality.”
While it’s rare to see someone from the public eye facing prison time for sexual violence, there are occasional examples of successful high profile prosecutions, which can provide a degree of solace for many. “The world is becoming more receptive, and some high profile cases have paved the way for making it a more normal, accepted, and even a more supported process when bringing things to light now,” says Marilyn.
“Although the burden of proof for the accusers in the successful cases is ridiculously high and the costs of going public are so devastating to their lives, at least when something ends in a conviction, it proves that sometimes, just sometimes, these things don’t go unpunished. It’s like a tiny, tiny chink of light in the dark,” says Kate*.
“When you show the system working to protect survivors, it can be encouraging,’ says Lucy Nevitt. “In a case such as Harvey Weinstein’s, not every victim got to have their case heard in court, but nonetheless it can be bolstering to see justice served on some level. Survivor solidarity is very much a thing, and when we see charges happening we rejoice for others.”
While they are potentially triggering, no matter the outcome, seeing these stories in the press can also provide a starting point for survivors to start processing their feelings. “These cases have encouraged more people to start talking about these experiences in therapy, where perhaps in the past they may have alluded to their past but not considered their stories to be 'worthy' enough of attention in the therapy room,” says Katerina Georgiou, a counsellor and psychotherapist. “Now I'm finding that more people – both men and women – are voicing feelings of anger, disappointment or horror that certain things happened to them in the past, and they are better able to recognise that what happened was wrong or wasn't their fault or somehow reconcile a split feeling in themselves about it.”
‘Too much focus is on the drama of court cases’
One final point to consider, is whether we perhaps collectively put too much weight on the outcome of individual cases. “It’s absolutely fantastic that there have been so many high profile court cases, as it has brought out into the open something awful that has been a sad fabric of our society for so long,” says survivor Judy Van Niekerk. “But now we are stuck in a loop of all the focus being on the drama of the court cases, rather than addressing the wider issues, namely the causes of rape.”
Ultimately, however important Cosby’s case is as a totem of all that’s wrong with the system, the main priority has to be ensuring survivors feel supported and heard. If you’re struggling to cope in light of the recent events, know that you’re far from alone. “Look after yourself, practise self-care, and keep on speaking out your truth, because we believe you,” says Madeleine.
Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland.
[Lizzy Dening Is the founder of Survivor Stories.](www.survivorstories.co.ukes.co.uk )