A Pennsylvania jury found Bill Cosby guilty on three counts of aggravated indecent assault on Thursday afternoon, landing the 80-year-old on the hook for up to 30 years in prison. Due to the various statutes of limitations, Andrea Constand, the victim in Thursday’s case, was the only one of the nearly five dozen women have accused the comedian of rape or sexual assault who stood a shot at getting justice in court. For many, Thursday’s verdict will have to serve as a long-overdue resolution by proxy.
Since last summer, when a different jury on the same case deadlocked, triggering a mistrial, the national conversation about sexual assault has exploded. Men whose sexual abuse was treated as an unfortunate, endurable side effect of their profitability have lost their jobs. A-list celebrities have gone public with accusations of mistreatment, exposing the breadth and diversity of Hollywood’s means of macerating female dignity. Movies were reshot, planned projects canceled, and TV series recast and rewritten to disassociate them from the known abusers that had nevertheless made them profitable in the first place. Tens of thousands of everyday people said on the internet that they, too, had been sexually victimized. If you hadn’t been paying attention, you might have noticed for the first time that the problem of sexual assault was a lot more widespread than you’d thought.
Observers at the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC News, Time, and elsewhere have attributed, to varying degrees, the different outcome in Cosby’s second trial to the #MeToo movement’s success. Certainly, more sexual abusers are getting booted from their positions of power these days than they were in 2005, when Constand first made her allegations public.
Even so, I am wary of using Cosby’s conviction as evidence that #MeToo has indelibly transformed society’s response to sexual violence, or that it is some “watershed moment” in our reimagining of gender inequity. Though the national discourse on sexual assault has shifted in recent months, the conventional wisdom on Cosby has not. Cosby’s reputation and career had been irreparably shattered for about two years by the time his first trial began in 2017. Almost 60 women had already given public accounts of his alleged abuse. The public had sat for two years with Cosby’s own under-oath admission, unveiled in a decade-old deposition, that he had given women sedatives to ply them into sexual submission. Jurors listened to chilling testimony from Constand, her mother, and one other victim of Cosby’s abuse. Imagine how mistrusting of women, and how in thrall to male power, a person would have to be to know what we know about Bill Cosby and still think him innocent. If anyone wasn’t convinced that Cosby was guilty in the face of all that evidence and public condemnation, a surge of women telling their own unrelated, comparatively less shocking stories—few #MeToo participants outed perpetrators who’d allegedly assaulted 58 women, as Cosby did—wasn’t going to be the thing that convinced them.
Far more important to the jury’s verdict, in my opinion, was the judge’s decision to allow five women in addition to Constand to testify about how Cosby abused them. (The original trial only permitted the testimony of one other victim.) If a dutiful juror was determined to consider only the Constand-related allegations presented at trial, ignoring all other impressions and knowledge of Cosby, he or she could have found the prosecutor’s case lacking. After the 2017 trial, one of the jurors who didn’t find Cosby guilty of sexual assault said he made his decision because the prosecution didn’t have enough “substantial evidence.” With four additional people able to testify to Cosby’s sexual violence in court, it was probably a lot harder for such a juror to portray the case as a he-said, she-said draw.
In the first trial, only two of the 12 jurors disagreed that Cosby was guilty. It’s possible that prosecutors simply picked a better jury this time around. I’d bet that in any random 12-person sampling of the jury-eligible public, several would think #MeToo has at least somewhat overstated the prevalence of sexual assault, and at least two would hold #MeToo responsible for ruining the lives and livelihoods of innocent men. In a Pew survey conducted in February and March of 2018, 76 percent of respondents identified “women falsely claiming sexual harassment/assault” in the workplace as a “problem” facing America. Nearly one-third of all respondents said it was “a major problem.” Fourteen percent of those polled—almost two in 12!—said “men getting away with committing sexual harassment/assault” in the workplace is not a problem in this country at all. Several months after the major revelations of the #MeToo movement, plenty of people still hadn’t gotten the message.
The colossal injustice of that hung jury set expectations low for this week’s trial, making the guilty verdict seem like a more significant victory than it is. When a shameless, serial sexual abuser facing a mountain of incriminating evidence from multiple women is convicted in only one of his two trials after decades of abuse, it’s hard to find the will to celebrate.
As a barometer on the ongoing fight against sexual violence, the Cosby verdict may not actually tell us very much. He is a singular figure who held an exceptional degree of power in his industry and the public eye, who used it to uncommonly sinister ends. There are few people who can match the scope of his manipulation, harm, and cover-up (Harvey Weinstein and Cardinal Bernard Law come to mind) but mostly, any punishment visited upon Bill Cosby reflects only on the case of Bill Cosby. The fact that it took such extraordinary means—dozens of women molested over half a century united in an international public-shaming campaign that built up for a decade until a famous man said a thing in a comedy routine—to get this conviction should not be held up as an encouraging sign for those invested in putting an end to sexual assault.
Cosby’s conviction doesn’t mean the famous alleged abusers who lost some gigs due to #MeToo aren’t going to return to the public eye, their faithful fans, and their well-paying jobs, as some have already begun to do. It doesn’t mean one thing to low-wage workers whose middle-management abusers will never be famous enough to warrant news coverage. It shouldn’t give any hope to someone seeking justice against a perpetrator without four or more other victims by her side, ready to overwhelm a jury with similar allegations. #MeToo may yet have begun to reform the way the American public and the justice system respond to sexual assault. The real test of that theory will come from the tougher, more contentious, less clear-cut cases, not the easy win that came decades past due.