The context of the Bill Cosby discussion has changed in the past few days. The shift has little to do with Cosby or his lawyer or the heap of accusations against the entertainer by alleged victims of sexual assault. It has everything to do with Rolling Stone, Sabrina Rubin Erdely and a young woman going by the nickname Jackie.
Jackie told Erdely a story about being gang-raped at the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone published it. The magazine has now issued a note to readers explaining, “In the face of new information reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account.” The note, from managing editor Will Dana, concluded, “We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.”
Cosby was affected by the story. Allegations against Cosby took off around the same time as Rolling Stone’s rape article was published. Together, the two narratives made the issue of sexual assault impossible to ignore, with each horrific story of alleged male privilege run amok implicitly buttressing the other.
So what did or didn’t happen at UVA now colors Cosby’s story — and the stories told by his alleged victims. That shouldn’t be the case. The comedian has acquired a long list of accusers, many of whose allegations are strikingly similar. The inevitable question is whether the similarities are because of Cosby’s predatory modus operandi or to a copycat phenomenon enabled by news media.
Suddenly, every Cosby accuser is a potential “Jackie” — although we don’t yet know precisely what it means to be a “Jackie.” How honest are the intentions of Cosby’s accusers? (One woman is alleged to have tried to extort the comedian.) How fallible are some of their memories all this time later? How accurate are those specific quotes? We don’t know. In some instances, we can’t know.
We fill the void with personal experience, sometimes known as “bias.”
Last Wednesday, New York Magazine writer Kat Stoeffel highlighted the absurdity of hoping that Jackie — one could replace her with the Cosby accusers — is telling the truth:
“The journalist backlash is putting feminists who believe in believing women in the uncomfortable position of hoping Jackie told the truth about her gang rape. Not because we want to confirm our biases about monstrous men, but because we’d hate to see confirmation for sexist biases about lying, attention-seeking women. In other words, we’re backed into the corner of hoping someone was gang-raped on broken glass — and how can that possibly constitute a happy ending?”
Blogger Chuck Johnson appears to be delighting in the possibility — to him seemingly a certainty — that Jackie lied. He has taken it upon himself to publish what he alleges is her full name and has exposed what he alleges is her “rape-obsessed Pinterest account.” On Sunday, he tweeted: “It does feel good to expose the frauds behind the campus rape myths. #UVAHoax.”
Absent proof, we have ideology and axes to grind. In the Washington Post, Zerlina Maxwell wrote that disbelieving stories of sexual assault signals “that women don’t matter and that they are disposable — not only to frat boys and Bill Cosby, but to us.” Set that against National Review Online contributor Mark Krikorian, who asserted on Twitter that “Every “outrage” story must now be assumed a hoax until proven otherwise.”
Presumably, people have taken the time to realize exactly what they’re rooting for. In both the UVA and Cosby cases the possible truths stretch from ghastly crimes to horrible slanders. No one should anticipate any potential outcome with excitement. There is no reason to feel “good” about anything here.
The Cosby and UVA stories are not over. What happens in one will continue to shape the context in which we interpret the other. We may inch closer to the truth in one or both cases. But if there was an opportunity for broader understanding and a sense of shared purpose in combating sexual violence, it seems pretty clear by now that we’ve lost it.
Zara Kessler is an editor at Bloomberg View.
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