By Shari Botwin, LCSW
I sat on the edge of my seat for hours at the Norristown Courthouse as Andrea Constand, the main witness in the Bill Cosby retrial, took the witness stand. It was the fifth day of Cosby’s retrial on sexual assault charges. Andrea told the jury her main reason for being in court was, “I am here for justice.” The courtroom was silent as Kristen Feden, one of the prosecutors, took the jury through the months of what Andrea described as a “mentor” relationship while she worked at Temple University.
As the hours of testimony wore on Andrea became more nervous and vulnerable as she described Cosby’s behavior toward her — the classic patterns of victim grooming. Andrea described her connection with Cosby as a mentor, father figure and respected Temple trustee. She told the jury about interactions she had with him prior to the sexual assault. The conversations were focused on her dilemma about her career path and she told the jury Cosby was encouraging her to pursue a career in sports broadcasting.
I have been counseling survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and childhood abuse in my private practice for over twenty years. One of the most challenging parts of working through any kind of sexual trauma is the guilt and shame that follows when a victim breaks the silence. Often patients will say things to me like, “He was good to me in so many other ways,” or, “Why didn’t I recognize that this person was trying to get me in his or her bed,” or “I should have tried and stopped it.” Most patients do not want to accept that someone that they gain trust or respect in would act in such hurtful ways. And in the more than twenty years I have heard stories of rape and sexual assault, I only know of one patient who pressed criminal charges. Patients tell me they are not willing or able to endure the scrutiny the victims are subjected to when pressing criminal charges and therefore must find alternative ways to heal. For many that means spending thousands of dollars in years of psychotherapy and other forms of support to help them work through their trauma.
Janice Baker Kinney, one of the witnesses who is also a Cosby accuser explained to the jury, “I don’t want someone else to have to wait 30 years to feel safe enough to come forward.” My response to Janice’s statement as I sat in court was it does not feel safe to come forward and pursue criminal charges. Statistics from RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network) suggest that two out of every three sexual assaults are not reported to the police. And most people who are charged criminally for rape are never prosecuted.
We are at a turning point in ending the rape culture. With movements such as #Metoo and #Timesup so many more men and women are acknowledging traumas and are speaking up sooner rather than later after the event occurs. Victim shaming and lack of support for victims in legal proceedings has not changed. The defense team for Cosby made it clear before trial even started that they planned to prove that Andrea is a “con artist,” and “gold digger.” At the onset of cross examination Tom Mesereau had Andrea repeat the amount of money she won in the civil suit against Cosby in 2005. Then he spent hours trying to “trip her up,” to make her testimony look inconsistent and create doubt among the jurors.
The isolation and intimidation victims are confronted with during a criminal trial, especially one that is high profile, is concerning. There were many moments when my heart sank as I watched Andrea and the other victims sitting on that witness stand. Andrea spent hours recalling so many specific details about the sexual assault and how she felt before, during and after it occurred.
Andrea and all the other Cosby accusers explained the amount of fear they felt about speaking. They all said the only reasons they were sitting in that courtroom last week was for justice and healing. None of them get paid to testify. None of them asked Kevin Steele, the DA to press charges. In fact, Kristen Feden had Andrea explain that the Commonwealth of PA went to her and asked her if she would cooperate in a criminal investigation. While she had a choice, she felt like she did not have a choice. She was not going to leave herself and the sixty plus other accusers left without an opportunity to be heard. All of them were forced to leave their families and be in Philadelphia living in isolation as they waited to testify. All of them told the jury they had to leave work to be at this trial. If we are trying to end the rape culture then we must stop victim shaming and portraying the victims as liars. Rather, we need to think about how to make victims feel safe, more supported and less disrespected. Bad enough so many people live through sexual assault and abuse. Now we need to find a way to make the legal system safer so victims do not have to be re-traumatized when seeking justice!