One of America’s most beloved entertainers, Bill Cosby, is now not only a rapist, but a serial rapist. As his lawyer, Marty Singer, correctly points out, most of the allegations now being raised aren’t new. Rather, they are debunked allegations renewed in the context of new social norms, where challenging such claims is viewed as a form of sexual abuse in itself. Victims can’t be blamed.
But the latest, victim number 7, provides an opportunity to appreciate how conduct that occurred (assuming it occurred) in one era is viewed through the prism of another era, and significantly misinterpreted.
In an interview on WPTV in West Palm Beach, Fla., the woman, Therese Serignese, 57, a registered nurse, accused Mr. Cosby of drugging and having sex with her after one of his shows at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1976 when she was 19.
The narrative of drugging a woman for sex is a recent one. Today, there are roofies, drugs surreptitiously slipped into a drink to incapacitate a woman so she can be raped. Concerns abound about men who will target a drunk or drugged woman as well, taking advantage of their incapacitated state. In the context of today’s narratives, these are the images that come to mind when a woman talks of “being drugged.”
But Serignese talks about conduct that occurred in 1976. Those were very different days than now, well before AIDS existed and well in the midst of drugs being a normal social mixer, routinely shared between men and women. Men didn’t “drug” women. While it’s unclear what type of drug Serignese is talking about, pills were social. From Black Beauties to Bennies, it would have been downright rude and offensive for a man not to offer pills to a woman he was courting.
At the same time, no one forced anyone else to take drugs. Indeed, no one really had to. Drugs were fairly pervasive, and were routinely used by everyone from nerdy, ordinary people to celebrities like Cosby. Everybody was getting high. Well, not everybody, but pretty much. The point is that, had Serignese told all her friends about how Bill Cosby gave her some pills in 1976, they would have said, “groovy” and asked how good they were.
In her interview with the local TV station in Florida, Ms. Serignese said that after meeting Mr. Cosby in the hotel gift shop, he invited her to watch the show, and she was given a front-row seat. She said that while she was alone with Mr. Cosby at an after-party, he offered her three large pills and said she should take them. She said she felt that she could not object. She was then sexually assaulted, she said.
In 1976, the social norm was the men would seek to seduce women into having sex. Women were expected to resist their advances, and men were expected to persist. This wasn’t considered rape, but ordinary courting. Men were the hunters, and women the hunted.
Indeed, lying to women to get them into bed was not merely commonplace, but anticipated. This was the sexual ritual that most people went through, and no one, neither male nor female, thought it wrong, no less criminal. Even in its most extreme, People v. Martin Evans (1975), it was not a crime. (Full disclosure: defense counsel in the Evans trial was Howie Meyer, my partner for ten years.)
The question presented in this case is whether the sexual conquest by a predatory male of a resisting female constitutes rape or seduction.
In making the distinction, we must deal with patterns of behavior which have been exhibited by aggressive males towards gentle or timid or submissive females, the broad outlines of which have been similar for hundreds or maybe thousands of years, but the particulars of which vary markedly in individual cases.
Marty, the “Snowman” as he was called back then, was acquitted.
As we have become more civilized, we have come to condemn the more overt, aggressive and outrageous behavior of some men towards women and we have labelled it ‘rape.’ We have attempted to control or deter it by providing for extremely heavy sentences, second to and, in some jurisdictions, equalled by the penalties set by the law for murder.
At the same time we have recognized that there are some patterns of aggression or aggressive male sexual behavior toward females which do not deserve such extreme penalties, in which the male objective may be achieved through charm or guile or protestations of love, promises or deceit.
Where force is not employed to overcome reluctance, and where consent, however reluctant initially, can be spelled out, this we label ‘seduction,’ which society may condone, even as it disapproves.
There is some conduct which comes close to the line between rape and seduction. This is such a case.
The point isn’t to argue that what Evans did, or how Judge Greenfield (no relation) found, but that this was the world back then. These were the social norms within which people functioned. You can hate it all you want, but you can’t expect today’s social norms to replace the ones in effect at the time.
After that, she said, she stayed at a room in his penthouse suite for several weeks, but he made her leave when she told him she might be pregnant, which turned out to be a false alarm. They kept in touch, she said, and, later, when she got into financial difficulty, Mr. Cosby sent her money.
Serignese wasn’t held captive. She wasn’t bound in chains while living with Cosby in his penthouse. She wasn’t subject to his Svengali-like voodoo to stay in touch and accept Cosby’s money when she was in financial difficulty. Today, there are complex explanations for why women who are raped don’t accuse their rapists, deny it happened, rationalize away the harm.
There are also simple explanations that it wasn’t considered rape, and that shacking up for a while was a good thing, a desirable thing. And living in the Penthouse with Cosby, taking his money, wasn’t a negative under any imaginable scenario at the time.
She said she had not spoken out publicly years ago because at that time she was young and believed that, given the culture of the era, few would have listened.
Yes, the culture of the era. It’s not that few would have listened, but that few, perhaps no one, would have thought anything wrong about it. While it may play well in light of today’s sexual mores, the developing rituals of infantile permission-based courting, such complaints back then would have not only failed to horrify anyone, but would have made Serignese come off as a flaming nutjob. And indeed, she would have deserved it.
“I did not want to be shamed, humiliated,” she said. But now, she said, she wants an apology.
Was it really so shameful, so humiliating, to spend “several weeks” living large in Bill Cosby’s penthouse? Not back then. Frankly, not today either. Perhaps she should have thought about an apology before enjoying Cosby’s largesse. In 1976, she was living the good life, and there is no reason why choices made based on the culture of the era demand an apology as we enter the neo-Victorian era of 2014.
Update: Soon after posting, Cristian Farias twitted to alert me that the Marshall Project had a post of the same title as mine. Notably, however, the post reflected the context of political captivity. While the titles may be the same (and I’m not changing mine), the content most assuredly is not.
Memo to Marshall Project: Somebody really ought to explain to Dana Goldstein the difference between facts (“Seven facts about rape.”) and rank speculation:
There is nothing surprising about sexual assault victims failing to come forward. More than half of rapes go unreported, according to the Justice Department.
Just a suggestion.