Last week, one the dozens of women who have accused Bill Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them finally got her day in court. Andrea Constand was allegedly drugged and assaulted at the TV star’s Pennsylvania mansion in 2004. For many of those victimised in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, a statute of limitations has passed. For these Jane Does, Constand’s case has been a proxy for their pain.
It had been a story 13 years in the making for Constand. She filed a civil suit against Cosby in 2005, which was settled a year later, and for over a decade the deposition from that suit remained sealed. A judge finally unsealed the documents last year for the Associated Press, and in them Cosby describes the same version of events as Constand: “I go inside her pants. I move my fingers.” He claimed the physical activity between them was consensual, and that the pills he gave her were Benadryl.
Whatever it was that Cosby gave Constand that night, or any of his accusers on any night, anyone could log onto YouTube and see that throughout his career, the comedy legend had based many routines on slipping people drugs. There was his “special sauce” segment on The Cosby Show about spiking his barbecue sauce so his dinner guests would get amorous. (“Haven’t you ever noticed after people have some of my barbecue sauce, after a while when it kicks in, they get all huggy-buggy? … Let me tell you, I’ve got a cup of it up on the night table.”) Then there was his “Spanish Fly” stand up bit where he joked about slipping a famous aphrodisiac into women’s drinks.
In the courtroom this month, Constand testified that Cosby told her the pills he gave her were herbal and would help her relax. Instead, they made her immobile. She was powerless to move as “America’s Dad” put his fingers inside her and touched her breasts. For this, he faced three felony charges of aggravated indecent assault.
The jury deliberated for 52 hours. It’s unknown exactly how the seven men and five women on the panel were divided, but by the end of last week, it became clear the jury was deadlocked. On Saturday morning, Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill declared a mistrial and vowed to schedule a new trial this year. He made a pointed statement that neither side should celebrate a victory.
It would be easy to view this sequence of events with despair. After all, we are a nation that shrugged when an Access Hollywood tape revealed a man bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy” – in fact, we elected that man as president. Here we go again: Yet another wealthy, powerful man sexually abuses women and slithers out of accountability.
But it’s possible to be hopeful that in the Cosby trial, a hung jury is a good sign. It means there were people on that jury who believe Andrea Constand, and they believe her so strongly that they will not change their minds. It means there were enough people on that jury have doubt in the infallibility of America’s Dad. If nothing else, this trial wedged open a national conversation about the smoke and mirrors of celebrity, about the stark disparity between a public icon and a private monster.
It got ugly, of course. Cosby’s defense team did what a defense team usually does with accusations of sexual assault: painted his accuser as untrustworthy. Andrea Constand did have some inconsistencies in her statements, including not remembering the exact date of when she was assaulted. When asked to explain this on the witness stand, she answered simply, “I was just confused. I realized I was mistaken.” The defense also went after Constand for being in contact with Cosby after the assault. She explained that, as an employee of the Temple University women’s basketball team, she continued to have a professional relationship with Cosby, who was a Temple trustee.
So the mistrial proves that myths about sexual assault victims are eroding. Faint proof, to be sure, but still proof. People, if not unanimous juries, are believing women. And it’s not just people in the public eye like Hannibal Buress, whose viral standup set spurred a deluge of fresh accusations against Cosby, or filmmakers Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow, who spoke up in support of the victims. The regular folks in suburban Pennsylvania who made up this jury – people who have watched episodes of The Cosby Show and flipped past JELL-O and Kodak commercials on their TV – believed women. This is a strong statement that we won’t sit by any longer and let the warm fuzzies of nostalgia numb us to the ugliness of a star’s behavior.
The Cosby trial put front and center an uncomfortable conversation about sex, drugs and how someone who is unconscious cannot give consent. One of the most enduring myths about sexual assault is that if the victim did not fight back, it means he or she must have wanted it. In 2017, we are finally reckoning with the tools that predators use to ensure their victims cannot fight back at all. People are all too quick to find ways to blame a victim for “asking for it.” Bill Cosby seems to have known this and exploited it: In the 2005 deposition unsealed last year, Cosby admitted to having seven prescriptions for Quaaludes, which he said he gave to women before having sex. It’s not difficult to understand why Cosby’s lawyers balked when that information was unsealed. And it’s fitting that the Cosby mistrial occurred the exact same week that ABC and Warner Bros. paused production on Bachelor In Paradise after allegations that one of the female contestants was too drunk to consent to sexual activity with a male on the show. This past week alone in America is proof that isn’t just snowflakes at liberal arts colleges talking about consent anymore.
Like many women who accuse powerful men of sexual assault, Constand had her every decision scrutinised. She wasn’t the “perfect victim,” and yet people believed her. A person who takes a pill should reasonably expect not to be rendered completely immobile. A person who can’t recall the exact date of their assault may just be a human who misremembers dates and times like anyone else. A person who has contact with their attacker lives in the real world, where survivors still have to live and work alongside those that harm them. All of these situations are reasonable to believe if you trust women.
Judge O’Neill vows a retrial will be scheduled within 120 days. This mistrial, as frustrating as it might seem, suggests you can actually win this kind of case against this kind of man. It says that we want America’s Dad to be held accountable. It says that we’re beginning to believe America’s daughters.