Women have spent decades silenced by the compression of society, confined by the fear of doubt, and crippled beneath the pressure of keeping abuse locked away inside of them. But things are changing. With a recent wave of women coming forward to talk about their experiences with rape and sexual assault, the world is becoming more responsive to the fact that these incidents occur on a daily basis. The media, which was once so cautious to ever discuss cases pertaining to sexual abuse, has become a plinth of hope for victims. Some may place this movement on the shoulders of dozens of women who came forward amidst high-profile cases in the last several years but, in truth, this has been a very long time coming. Just this past year the general public has followed as college student Emma Sulkowicz carried her dorm room mattress across campus at Columbia University in an effort to raise awareness about sexual assault on campuses, we collectively found ourselves shocked as more than forty women came forward as victims of sexual assault by Bill Cosby and, throughout all of this, the social epidemic became very clear.
Statistics surrounding sexual assault are seldom discussed; for instance, not many know that every 107 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, or that 98% of rapists will never spend a day in jail or prison. The numbers are alarming, but not as worrisome as the fact that in 2015, knowledge is still barred from education within school systems. Many students in the United States maneuver their way throughout high school, deprived of the proper knowledge that will make a college experience easier when it comes to sexual assault matters. In an effort to ease this problematic transition, Annie Clark joined forces with several students at UNC Chapel Hill to file a complaint against their assaulters. Without the aid of lawyers, the women took to the media to voice their case. “We really wanted to connect with other survivors… we wanted to put our faces to our stories and let other students know that they had the ability to do this as well,” Annie recalls. Speaking out about an assault, although enormously courageous, can sometimes come with a cost. The internet and social media have paved way for both the good and the bad – “When it comes to [sexual assault] cases, the internet can be a double-edge sword. One can find so much support on the internet, allowing survivors to connect and organize in ways that were completely unprecedented previously. But, the anonymity of the internet is harmful; online forums have allowed people to anonymously post threats and hate mail targeted at survivors and it’s really very scary.” Since going public with her own case, Annie Clark founded End Rape On Campus – an organization that assists college students in gaining justice in sexual assault cases. Campuses across the country – most recently Columbia University – have come under fire for their lack of punishment against rapists and assailants. End Rape On Campus, or “EROC”, have taken on dozens of cases in the last several years, offering assistance in legal actions such as obtaining restraining orders and connecting survivors with attorneys. EROC will even assist in helping change your college classes if that proves to be something that is needed for a survivor. It’s no surprise, really, that Huffington Post listed Annie alongside President Obama in 2013 as one of the most influential forces in higher education. Even with all of her accomplishments, Annie doesn’t hesitate to admit that we have a very long way to go, “In the United States, there is a culture of victim blaming whenever someone speaks out. Obviously we aren’t alone in this issue – it happens all over the world. I think that we have a long way to go within the school systems as well as the criminal justice system… These high profile cases [that have been going on] are a reflection of what’s happening across the world. People are becoming more comfortable coming forward than they would’ve been years ago.”
In May 2015, Columbia graduates lined up on stage to receive their diplomas; standing out amongst her peers was Emma Sulkowicz – she had in her hands a fifty pound mattress that has become a topic of conversation throughout the last year. Emma spent the entirety of her senior year at the Ivy League college carrying a dorm room mattress with her around campus; what began as her senior thesis for Visual Arts rapidly became a stout public display of protest against the seemingly never-ending cases of campus rape and assault in the United States. Emma, not unlike many other survivors of assault who decide to publicly share their stories, became the target of a nationwide witch-hunt. Online publications discredited her, social media frequenters damned her, and her own school failed her when they found her alleged rapist innocent, allowing him to remain a student. Despite the anonymous backlash, many of Emma’s peers at Columbia stood by her side – in October 2014, dozens of students rallied together, carrying 28 mattresses with them around the school’s Morningside Heights campus. The 28 mattresses symbolized each Columbia student who signed a federal Title IX complaint in April of the same year. The complaint contended that in the handling of sexual assault complaints, both Columbia and Barnard colleges were in violation of Title IX – a law that ensures gender equality on campuses. Because Emma, like 95% of other student victims, waited to report the crime, her initial report to campus officials was not taken very seriously. In fact, Emma herself didn’t comprehend the attack as something serious, “I was upset and confused… I wanted to have a talk with [the accused assaulter] to try to understand why he would hit me, strangle me and anally penetrate me without my consent.” This conversation with her rapist would eventually go on to be used against her by a reporter who came in possession of more than ten pages full of Facebook messages between the two. Emma has been battling with naysayers in the form of peers, reporters, online bullies, and more recently, vandals who took to the streets of New York City to plaster posters of Emma with the words “Pretty Little Liar” across them. Throughout the entire ordeal that came from her going public with her assault, Emma has gracefully (and maybe unintentionally) molded herself into a figurehead of hope for young women who find their voices to be insignificant.
Social media – Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and beyond – have become platforms for survivors of assault to speak out and connect with each other in ways that they never could before. Conversations of sexual assault have become more prevalent in recent years because survivors now have access to an entire new world online that allows private conversations about their ordeals – away from the spotlight of the media storms, and away from the reality of their own lives. Many high profile cases of sexual assault stemmed from something being posted online. Terry Richardson has been the topic of many online essays written by models that have fallen victim to his now notorious working conditions. “Uncle Terry”, as he is commonly referred to, allegedly uses his influence within the industry to coerce models into performing sexual acts on him – all instances occurring during the middle of a photo shoot. What’s worse is that Richardson’s longtime female assistant is said to ‘console’ models after these ‘encounters’, assuring them that this is normal in the industry. The Model Alliance, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve the conditions of the American modeling industry, is here to tell you that this behavior is not acceptable. Sara Ziff founded The Model Alliance after experiencing several instances during her years as a young model that involved drugs and questionable behavior from photographers and modeling agents. The organization focuses on many of the unnerving aspects of the industry such as unhealthy body images, child labor laws, sexual abuse, and financial transparency. “By giving models a platform to organize to improve their industry, The Model Alliance aims to enhance the vitality and moral standing of the fashion business as a whole,” says Sara. The alliance’s website includes a forum for models to speak out about troubling incidents within the industry – many of whom have fallen victim to instances including sexual abuse or being told that they were plus-sized despite being a size six. In 2013, The Model Alliance proposed a legislation that would afford protection to child models in New York. Model Coco Rocha spoke in support of the legislation, “I was scouted at the ripe old age of fourteen. By the time I was sixteen I was living and working alone in New York City. During my ten years as a model I’m fortunate enough to have realized many of my professional goals, though not without feeling enormous pressure to agree to demands and make certain choices that no young person should ever have to deal with.”
History has been riddled with high profile cases concerning sexual assaults – Kobe Bryant, R. Kelly, Terry Richardson, Mike Tyson, Kevin Clash, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and, most recently, Bill Cosby. The stories are never easier to swallow once the media grabs a hold of them, and the famous faces are forever tainted. When Bill Cosby was accused of drugging and raping women, the world was in disbelief. It wasn’t until dozens of women came forward with their own stories of assault that the ideals of what was once a wholesome “American dad” shifted. Kathy McKee, the once-girlfriend of Sammy Davis Jr., spent her younger years on tour with the Rat Pack crooner. It was then that she would first meet Cosby in a social setting; the assault would follow shortly thereafter. “For many years, I was afraid to discuss [the assault] with anyone except my very close friends. The matter of non-stranger date rape is a peculiar thing to process in the brain after it happens. I truly didn’t know how to respond.” Kathy, who worked in show business, says that she was aware of “how things worked in the business”, and justified the incident as a “powerful man wanting his way” with her. Not unlike Annie, Kathy finds the internet to construct more harm than good, “I have seen comments like, ‘It’s not possible for such a great, kind man to do such a thing’. In my opinion, that reveals certain ignorance… I think as women and victims, we continue to suffer and deal with the cruel comments of the general public who buy into the celebrity image.” Kathy is one of more than thirty women who have publicly spoken out against Cosby – some notable names, some simply pedestrian. Although the media storm has hit hard, she remains clearheaded about the ordeal, hoping that by her speaking out, more women will feel brave enough to come forward about their own assaults. “I find great peace in knowing that maybe somehow I am able to help someone out there dealing with this pain and shame.”
Cosby, now 78-years-old, spent the majority of late 2014 into the duration of 2015 under a spotlight as more than forty women came forward with their stories of assault. No two recollections differed – the women all came in contact with Cosby, were slipped a drug, and woke up in extreme confusion. The details, all chilling, were solidified by an unsealed deposition from 2005 wherein Cosby admits to obtaining Quaaludes with the intentions of giving them to women as a twisted sort of foreplay on the actor’s part. In the documents, which were parts of a lawsuit against him by Temple University basketball coach, Andrea Constand, Cosby comes off as brashly arrogant – confident, even – in his abilities to read the emotions of women in sexual situations “or whatever you want to call them”. Make no mistake, though. Cosby’s “abilities to read the situation” with Ms. Constand came in the form of “one and a half Benadryl tablets to relieve stress.” If the actor’s recounts of events weren’t grotesque enough, his casual demeanor during conversation regarding his wife could floor even the toughest minds. In order to hide his “other” life, Cosby used his agent as a funnel to disperse large sums of money to women – paying for Andrea Constand’s education in the process. The public is now left to draw their assumptions and ideas about a man who was once the figurehead of American television. No longer will Cosby be associated with his alter ego – a pinnacle in television history – he will be looked back upon as a serial rapist; a man who sexually abused women behind closed doors for the entirety of his shining career all while portraying himself as a morally-conscious family man in the public eye. Marquette University, Fordham University and Brown University have revoked honorary doctorates previously gifted to Cosby, NYU removed the actor’s name from their Future Filmmakers Workshop, and Spelman College dropped a professorship with him – all pronouncements that came very naturally to those who had to make the ultimate decision. Brown University’s President, Christina Paxson, said in a statement, “It has become clear, by his own admission in legal depositions that became public this summer, that Mr. Cosby has engaged in conduct with women that is contrary to the values of Brown and the qualities for which he was honored by the University in 1985.”
On Wednesday, September 30, 2015, with already more than forty women having spoken out against him, Cosby can now add three more to the list. According to USA Today, Gloria Allred introduced three new accusers to the media during a press conference at her Los Angeles office. A former Mrs. America contestant, a cocktail server, and an aspiring Playboy model have all spoken out with similar takes on their situations as the last forty-plus women.
More often than not, we are seeing men being accused of heinous crimes against women and still maintaining their day jobs. Terry Richardson has been on the receiving end of many complaints and public statements from women who have accused him of sexual assault, yet he is still one of the highest-paid photographers in the fashion industry. Woody Allen famously went head-to-head with Mia Farrow in 1993 over accusations that he molested their 7-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan. Even with the world being well informed of this, Allen has since made more than 20 films, the majority of which were successful in the box office. Kobe Bryant, R. Kelly, and Mike Tyson have all done well for themselves since their public scandals – even Bill Cosby, who is in the eye of the storm, is selling out his stand up shows. The fact that these men who have been publicly scrutinized for their accused assaults are still maintaining success and explicit wealth makes the idea of speaking out against rapists a terror for some women.
It has become apparent that sexual assaults will occur no matter what industry one may be involved in, no matter what campus one may attend, and no matter what one is wearing. The social status of a person holds no merit under the court of law when one chooses to assault another human being, so why are famous men still reigning strong publicly and professionally after proven assaults? The world still has a very long way to go when it comes to accepting, speaking about, and understanding sexual assault. Annie and Kathy, both survivors who have taken control of their situations by speaking out, heed the same advice to victims – “Use caution. Speak to the right people and protect yourself”, says Kathy. On the same note, Annie advises, “You don’t owe your story to anyone. Always come forward for yourself.”
– Jessica Natale for The Untitled Magazine