As of Thursday afternoon, 16 women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, the latest a nurse named Therese Serignese who says the comedian drugged and raped her in the mid-1970s. Earlier this week, model Janice Dickinson told a similar story, alleging that Cosby drugged her during a 1982 encounter, and that she woke up in a daze the next morning with her clothes off and “semen in between my legs.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic on Wednesday, the sheer number of allegations against Cosby makes it hard to believe that he’s anything but a serial predator. “[B]elieving Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person’s word over another,” Coates writes, “it requires you take one person’s word over 15 others.” (The number of accusers has gone up since Wednesday.)
Claims of sexual abuse against Cosby aren’t new, as Gawker’s Tom Scocca noted earlier this year—Philadelphia magazine, People, the Today show, and other media outlets reported on accusations from multiple women back in the mid-2000s. These women gave bracing, on-the-record accounts of Cosby drugging and raping them. So why are we only paying attention now?
Barbara Bowman, one of Cosby’s alleged victims, first told her story to Philadelphia magazine’s Robert Huber in 2006. In a piece for the Washington Post last week, Bowman says people finally listened to her because “a man, Hannibal Buress” (italics hers) gave voice to what she’d been saying for a decade. Scocca argued back in February that stories like Bowman’s were ignored because they contradicted Cosby’s happy, smiley TV image—that “nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator. It was too much to handle.” And in a Slate piece, also this February, Newsweek’s Katie J.M. Baker told Amanda Hess that the women making claims against Cosby were blithely cast aside “because they were imperfect victims,” that nobody had much sympathy for “ambitious aspiring actresses and models who were hanging out with an older man who said he’d make them famous.”
I don’t think any of these explanations is quite right. It’s certainly true that, in 2006, “nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator.” But I don’t get the sense that anyone is particularly excited to ponder Cliff Huxtable’s alleged sex crimes in 2014, and yet here we are. To understand what’s changed, let’s consider the case of R. Kelly, a man who, despite a Cosby-esque litany of sexual assault allegations against him, has yet to face a Cosby-esque backlash.
I covered Kelly’s child pornography trial back in 2008, a task that required sitting in a Chicago courtroom and watching a video in which a man who looks exactly like Kelly urinates on and has sex with a teenage girl. Though Dave Chappelle turned Kelly’s micturition into a joke, there’s nothing funny about this tape, which shows a girl of around 14 saying “Yes, daddy” when she’s asked to initiate sex. Jim DeRogatis, who doggedly chronicled the allegations against Kelly in the Chicago Sun-Times when no else seemed to care, said in a recent interview with the Village Voice’s Jessica Hopper that she has “the disembodied look of the rape victim.”
Despite what was on that video, the “Sex Planet” singer was acquitted of all charges in his 2008 trial, in large part because the alleged victim refused to testify. But this wasn’t an isolated accusation. In a separate piece for the Voice, DeRogatis cites “dozens of civil lawsuits and out-of-court settlements with underage girls who claim they had sexual relationships with him that left them physically and emotionally damaged,” adding, “I will never forget sitting with a girl who showed me the scars where she slit her wrists when her relationship with Kelly ended.”
DeRogatis has been on the Kelly story since 2000, when he wrote an article with Abdon M. Pallasch that began, “Chicago singer and songwriter R. Kelly used his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them, according to court records and interviews.” That story describes a lawsuit by a woman who said she met the R&B star at age 14, started having sex with him at 15, and that he “encouraged her to participate in group sex with him and other underage girls.” Another woman named in that same lawsuit, who said she had sex with Kelly when she was 16, told DeRogatis that she believed the singer had a “sickness” for underage girls.
That lawsuit that DeRogatis wrote about in 2000 was settled, and the alleged victim’s mother told DeRogatis that “the terms of the settlement forbid her from talking to the press.” That, in part, explains why the Kelly story has never exploded into a Cosby-style media moment. Had one of the women in that lawsuit (or any of the other women who filed a lawsuit against Kelly) made the incredibly difficult choice to come forward and give a first-person account, perhaps more would have felt emboldened to do the same. That’s what happened with Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi, and also with Cosby.
The accusations against Kelly did get a bit more attention when the Village Voice’s Hopper collected and recapitulated DeRogatis’ reporting in December. At least, they got more notice than when Hitsville’s Bill Wyman did the same thing in 2008. As these last couple of weeks have demonstrated, the Internet’s power to amplify messages (for good and for ill) is exponentially greater than it was just a few years ago. That’s in part due to the rise of Twitter, but also because the media ecosystem is so much different now, with sites like BuzzFeed, Gawker, and, yes, Slate, pouncing on items more quickly and spreading them far and wide. (This is why the Buress video caught fire online, not because a man was saying that Cosby was a rapist.) As a society, we’ve also moved slowly but perceptibly in the direction of believing alleged victims of sexual assault—it turns out that we do, at least in some cases, give credence to the claims of ambitious aspiring actresses. This shift over the last 10 years may be small, but it’s real, and it’s contributed to how this wave of Cosby allegations has been received in the press and in the broader culture.
Given these factors, all of the R. Kelly reporting that’s already out there—helpfully aggregated by the Village Voice—is a tinderbox that’s waiting to be lit. It just hasn’t happened yet. If someone like Lady Gaga says she won’t work with Kelly anymore and explains why (preferably in a sharable video), then that could be the Hannibal Buress–esque spark. If some of Kelly’s alleged victims decide to tell their stories, that could do it, too.
I’m not saying they should come forward—that decision, of course, is theirs and theirs alone. This is simply an explanation of why Cosby has become a pariah while Kelly continues his career unperturbed (with the small exception of a recently canceled concert appearance). In 2010, he performed at the World Cup. In 2011, he was named Billboard’s top R&B artist of the last quarter-century. He continues to play sold-out shows and release new tracks and major-label albums. He continues to get a pass, one that Cosby once received and has now been revoked.