In the past year, former actor Bill Cosby stood trial twice on three accounts of aggravated assault towards Andrea Constand. The first of the two trials ended without a verdict, and in June 2017 Cosby walked free.
In Cosby’s second trial, which took place in April 2018, he was found guilty after just two days of deliberation by the jury. He was sentenced to ten years in jail for each of the three account of assault. How did Cosby go free in June, only to be found guilty less than a year later?
Cosby’s verdict serves as one of the first high-profile legal convictions of the #MeToo era, a movement meant to promote awareness and advocacy for victims of sexual abuse and assault. The extensive attention given to the movement by mainstream media has unintentionally but successfully pushed the legal system to rethink its approach to dealing with cases of sexual assault and misconduct.
The months that followed Cosby’s first trial revealed a plague of sexual assault and abuse by powerful men, including politicians and men in the entertainment industry. The allegations spanned the course of decades, but were given little attention by the media until now. Men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey saw their careers and credibility fall apart in the course of days. But all have yet to be convicted.
These allegations sparked a national discussion on sexual assault and harassment, and prompted the rapid spreading of the hashtag, #MeToo through social media. Civil rights activist Tarana Burke started the MeToo initiative in 2006, calling the mission of the organization “empowerment through empathy.” In October 2017, #MeToo had over 1.7 million tweets from over 85 countries, and it hasn’t gone away since.
The movement’s webpage is simple and easy to navigate: it has a video from Burke explaining the cause, a donation and newsletter spot, and the icons linked directly to the social media platforms of the MeToo. The movement’s initial goal was to publicly advocate for sexual assault and harassment awareness, which makes its reliance on social media even more brilliant.
— Me Too (@MeTooMVMT) April 18, 2018
Progress ensues with support, and the [number] of women who have admitted to having a MeToo moment in their lives further shows the problem of how sexual assault is dealt with.
Outside the courtroom on April 26, Lawyer Gloria Allred spoke to the press. Allred, who represented 33 of the women that accused Cosby, credited the #MeToo movement for the verdict.
“In the beginning, many [of Mr. Cosby’s accusers] were not believed,” Allred said. “We are so happy that finally we can say women are believed and not only #MeToo but in a court of law where they were under oath, where they testified truthfully, where they were attacked, where they were smeared, where they were denigrated, where there were attempts to discredit them. And after all is said and done, women were finally believed and we thank the jury so much for that.”
Additionally, the outcome of the case can be seen as a reflection of changing perceptions by the media, and people in general, about sexual assault brought on by a rapidly increasing awareness of the issue and the extent to which it exists.
The number of tweets regarding sexual assault and harassment jumped from 2 million to almost 8 million through the months of October-January. Previous years show the number of these tweets well below 2 million. The rapid viral trending of #MeToo is indicative of the widespread issue surrounding sexual assault and harassment.
Cases of sexual assault often become instances of ‘he said, she said’, and are difficult to prosecute for this reason. The #MeToo movement lets survivors of assault unite under a common testimony that makes the case against the defendant stronger.
“When it comes down to it, #MeToo itself constitutes as an evidentiary claim of sorts,” Jeannie Gursen writes for the New Yorker. “What you say happened to you happened to me, too, and so it is more likely that we are both telling the truth.”
But what happens to the men with just one or two allegations of sexual assault against them? Cosby’s second trial ended the way it did, in part because of the overwhelming number of women he assaulted over a long period of time. A case in the court of law needs overwhelming evidence of guilt, which is often difficult to get in cases of sexual assault, especially when the men in question are considered elite or powerful.
Instances like that of comedian Aziz Ansari, who was accused of harassment by an anonymous woman, lacked the united testimony that was found in the Cosby trial. Around 81% of women report to the police some sort of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime, with 50 percent of women admitting to being touched sexually without their consent at one time. This can occur anywhere: in the workplace, in public spaces, in school.
This is the text Grace* sent Aziz Ansari after their date which left her feeling “violated”. She tells Ansari how uncomfortable he made her feel, saying “you ignored clear non-verbal cues” and “kept going with advances.”
— babe (@babedotnet) January 14, 2018
How could courts possibly handle all these cases? What criteria must a case have to even be considered for court? When does a case of sexual misconduct result in a slap on the wrist, and when does it advance to legal repercussions?
These are all questions that must be considered as the #MeToo movement progresses in its mission. The courts have shown slow advances in their approach to dealing with such cases, it’s a matter of when new actions will be implemented. Not every instance of harassment can be dealt with in depth, which is why the case against Bill Cosby is so important. It serves as a benchmark for which the legal system must amend its approach to cases of assault.
The guilty verdict that resulted from Constand v. Cosby will be the first in a long list of legal justices in the court of law, and a lasting testament to the successful initiatives in the era of #MeToo. The New York City Bar, for example, is holding a conference to show new lawyers how to better deal with cases of sexual assault.
So long as the movement continues to spread its mission and outreach, reform will come to the institutions that created the need for the movement in the first place.