Originally written and published for Abernathy Magazine on January 20, 2016.
ONE SENTIMENT EXPRESSED THROUGHOUT THE COSBY NEWS CYCLE is that some men think it is scary that they could one day be accused of rape. That is a valid concern. It is an even scarier thought though, that someone may actually rape someone without understanding what rape truly is.
The biggest takeaway from the Cosby sexual assaults? People don’t really understand what sexual assault is. It is a tough topic to confront and there are rarely any witnesses because it is most times a private act. There are some false reports of rape, but probably not as many as some people like to argue. There are many unreported rapes, probably more than some people care to admit.
Sexual assault is real. It happens. It is much easier though to blame the accuser. To proceed as if the heinous act did not occur and the woman is simply scheming. It’s easier to ask why a woman would go anywhere at 2am, or to a married man’s room, or go out wearing something so skimpy expecting anything other than sex. It’s easier to ask why they would take pills or get intoxicated when they know what could possibly happen. It’s easier to assume that she must have wanted it, even if she said no. But it’s more difficult to fathom that those very same presumptions are what lead to many sexual assaults.
Perhaps it’s more difficult because these thoughts and behaviors that could possibly constitute sexual assault are more common than some would like to admit.
Sexual assaults occur more often than we understand, or choose to understand. Sexual assaults occur when we presume consent; when we believe that we are entitled to sex and surmise that we have the okay to proceed simply because one comes over at 2am, or because one is dressed a certain way, or because one got drunk and passed out, or because one knew the pills that they took would knock them out.
Sexual assault happens when we presume that we have the right to take what we want, because one must have wanted it for one reason or another. Sexual assault happens when we assume that the absence of a no means a yes. Sexual assault happens when we presume consent, regardless of one’s ability to actually give valid consent.
So what is consent, exactly? Consent is a voluntary, positive agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity. Consent can be given in different ways, but you cannot presume consent. It has to be clear and unambiguous. The absence of a no is not a yes. Thinking the other party wants it, seeming like they want it, or insinuating that they want it are not examples of clear and unambiguous consent. Understanding consent is a judgment call, one made much easier if verbal communication occurs. A person who is asleep, mentally or physically incapacitated, or under the effects of drugs or alcohol, is not capable of giving valid consent.
And this is where the disconnect seems to present itself. People do not understand consent.
Bill Cosby admitted to securing Quualudes to give to young women he wanted to have sex with in the 1970s. Quualudes have been described as part sleeping pill, part sedative. In 2005, Cosby told police that the pills he gave Amanda Comstand “would make him drowsy and go to sleep right away.” Cosby said he would “not take the pills and go out and perform.” Whether the women he provided with these pills took them voluntarily or not, they were then unable to give valid consent after they did so. If they were to have sexual contact with him and afterwards accuse him of sexual assault, then that’s exactly what it would be… sexual assault. Bill Cosby’s own admissions would mean that he had sexual contact with women without getting valid consent from them. They were simply unable to give it.
When people defend Bill Cosby, I see a refusal to acknowledge that his actions could constitute rape. Maybe he won’t be found guilty in a court of law, but he also very easily could. Many of the accusers can’t bring criminal charges because of statute of limitations constraints. Others may simply not have the evidence to prove their accusations beyond a reasonable doubt. That doesn’t mean that a crime did not happen. The domestic terrorists who have murdered countless Black people throughout history will never be brought to justice, and we’re still fighting to get convictions for present-day acts of terror.
We protest, we march, we shout, we fight. We don’t need a guilty plea to convict certain people in the court of public opinion, but when it comes to Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and others, all of a sudden we rely on the criminal justice system to get it right. We’re more willing to shame the accusers who didn’t come forward in “enough time” than we are to condemn Cosby for having sex with intoxicated women who lacked the ability to give valid consent. Again, maybe its because we don’t understand what sexual assault is. Cosby’s own admitted actions are defined as sexual assault.
Non-consensual sex is rape. Can consent be misinterpreted? Possibly. But when all parties agree the complaining party was under the influence, then it becomes a bit more black and white.
If someone has taken drugs or alcohol they cannot give valid consent. It doesn’t matter if you gave it to them or if they took it themselves. If they don’t have the mental capacity, how can they consent to what’s going on? They cannot. The concept of consent is a protection in place so that people aren’t victimized, intentionally or unintentionally. And if someone is passed out or barely lucid, you should not proceed. There is no gray area there.
Will you be charged with rape? That depends on if the non-initiating party makes the complaint during or afterwards that they did not want to proceed with the type of sexual activity that you are accused of engaging in. Could you be charged with rape? Absolutely.
The defenses of sexual assault may not be intentional. Some behaviors and actions we’ve learned and adopted as acceptable, are not. Rick Ross is so confused about what sexual assault is that he rapped about drugging a woman without her knowing it and didn’t understand that he was verbalizing assault on multiple levels. Because drugging someone without their permission in and of itself is assault; anything sexual that happens after the molly is dropped all in her champagne without her knowing it—is sexual assault. Yet he bragged about it.
Common pro-sexual assault behaviors are learned, adopted, and passed down. That is rape culture. These behaviors get passed on in daily conversation, in music, on the internet; to brothers, sisters, cousins, and so on. We have to begin to understand what sexual assault is in order to break the continuum. We have to understand consent, and we have to confront behaviors that are culturally accepted, yet morally reprehensible. We have to call them out.
A few takeaways though, just to be clear:
If you drop a molly in someone’s drink (especially without them knowing, but either way) – sex after that can be considered sexual assault.
If you are both intoxicated and decide to have sex – that can still be considered sexual assault. You being intoxicated as well is not a valid defense. Either party can make the complaint, because they both lacked the ability to give valid consent.
If someone is extremely intoxicated at the club, or a party, they lack the ability to give valid consent. If you take them home and have sex with them, a very common scenario, that can be considered sexual assault. Even with verbal consent… they do not have the ability to give valid consent. They may not understand what is going on.
If someone was acting like they wanted it, and afterwards say they did not in fact, want it… that can be considered sexual assault. Yes they have the burden of proving their accusations, for better or for worse, but acting like one wants to have sex is not consent.
Someone coming over and laying in your bed late at night is not consent. You cannot presume consent, and they are not asking for it.
And yes, if they change their mind while having sex, you have lost consent. If you continue on, that is not giving them “what they really want” – it is sexual assault.
Yes you can have scenarios where drugs, alcohol, and other intoxicants are in play and all parties involved are happy and satisfied. However, do not assume that you’re on the same page. Doing so can result in sexual assault. Do understand that this happens more than folks would like to admit.
There are many, many different examples but the underlying element that people repeatedly fail to understand as they defend Bill Cosby, and sexual assault in general, is the concept of consent. You should not initiate any sexual acts without consent, and you absolutely should not assume that consent given while under the influence is valid.
If after all of this you are still willing to stand by Bill Cosby, and you are still adamant that those who allege a sexual assault has occurred are conniving liars, then that is your prerogative. But at least question why you’re defending a man who is apparently, and admittedly, hell-bent on giving pills to women that at best make them sedated, and at worst knock them out.