A Meditation on Rape, Rape Culture, News, and History
Today’s guest blog post is written by Starita Smith, a former daily newspaper reporter and editor. She worked for the Gary Post-Tribune, The Columbus Dispatch and the Austin American-Statesman. She is a professor of sociology, who has taught at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX where she received her Ph.D in sociology. She teaches sociology courses online at North Carolina Wesleyan College and lives in Irving, TX.
Bill Cosby, one of the richest and most commanding entertainment media figures in the world, has become a news media fixation because of the alleged dichotomy of his life. Recently more than 50 women have publicly accused him of sexually abusing and raping them. According to these women, Cosby carried on a prolific carrel of serial rape even while being a man genial enough to sell Jell-O pudding with cute tots.
Cosby carried on the legacy led back to Bill Bojangles Robinson tapping with little Shirley Temple on a staircase in a movie. Like Robinson, Cosby was a charming, funny, almost sexless black guy who could sell cuteness for days. When black men are still stereotyped as angry and violent – even uncontrollably lustful – Robinson (and later Cosby) were seen as nonthreatening. In the 1960s, Cosby even managed to play a tennis pro who was really an international spy without a single James Bondish moment of gratuitous sex.
Sure, he had a lot of children with his wife, Camille, but that was just evidence that he was happily married and did not have to seek extramarital sex in real life. If you mistakenly believe that rape is about sex, then Cosby posed no problems. What we know now, thanks to Susan Brownmiller and other scholars (namely Andrea Dworkin and Angela Davis) is that rape is not about sex; it is really about violence and power.
Cosby has a nearly perfect public persona. My first inkling of a chink in the carefully crafted wholesome image of Cosby came when I was a reporter at the Gary Post-Tribune newspaper in Indiana from 1979-1982. Gary was (and still is) more than 75 percent black. In the wake of electing its first black mayor, Richard Hatcher, a politician who won by making no secret of his black power stance, white people and white businesses fled over the city line to Merrillville, then a white town. Gary seethed in poisonous resentment and launched a boycott of Merrillville that had black Garyites driving all the way to school in Chicago just so they could avoid being seen there.
A punch in the gut for Gary came with the construction of Merrillville’s Holiday Star Theater (now called the Star Plaza) and the announcement of a roster of internationally famous black and white entertainers like Bill Cosby, Tom Jones and Diana Ross. How could Garyites resist the allure of big time entertainment right in the next town?
As a beginning reporter, I had nothing to do with covering the Holiday Star Theater or anything else in Merrillville, but I vaguely remember a strange tidbit I heard at work one day: Bill Cosby trapped a woman in his room for two days and refused to answer the door. The police were called to help hotel security get her out. And then, the whole incident disappeared and was never spoken about again.
You see, when you are writing the rough draft of history, as journalists like to believe we are, it is impossible to see the importance or get the details of every chapter on the first go ‘round. I have known of other rape stories about elected officials and famous people that didn’t make the rough draft of history for decades, if ever. The rough draft of history, as much as is detailed in local and national newspapers, was just that – a rough draft – incomplete and often unpolished. Only coincidence and the eroding of cover-ups cause truths to be uncovered.
Unfortunately, all these years later, my efforts to verify my memory of Cosby in Merrillville came to naught, but obviously something unsettling happened at the Holiday Star when Cosby was there in 1980. With the help of Lake County, Indiana librarians, (the old Post–Tribune has gone the way of many shrinking and disappearing dailies) I found two mentions of that time. One was an open letter to Cosby by Jean M. Isaacs, the music-drama critic of the Post-Tribune, and former colleague of mine, scolding the comedian after attending one of his comedy shows.
“My concern is about that very graphic drunk scene coupled with some off-color words. True, many young people have heard those words before. Some may have tried alcohol to the point you described but hearing you say those things before 3,000 people gave it the stamp that you condone such behavior and such words,” wrote Isaacs.1
The other reference came from a 2006 autobiography written by one of the builders of the Holiday Star – W.F. “Bill” Wellman – who was dazzled by Cosby’s comedic talent.
“The limo driver attending to Mr. Cosby’s every need was a young, sharp African American about the size of a professional jockey.” The two ordered room service and were eventually joined by a “tall, very good looking young blonde lady.” When word came that Camille Cosby was on the way to Merrillville from Chicago, the young woman was whisked away to an airport to catch a plane somewhere. “What happens in Merrillville stays in Merrillville – well almost!” wrote Wellman.2
I can imagine ephemeral events like this happening over and over in the life of any entertainer who goes on the road. But Cosby’s legion of accusers said that they were victimized not just on the road, but in Cosby’s many homes, at the studio while he was working on his comedy series and elsewhere. Cosby himself admitted in a deposition that he would use drugs to get women to have sex with him.3
What he admitted to is different and more criminal than having the occasional affair. Cosby admitted to rape.
As I was thinking about Cosby, I remembered another case that I got pulled into covering in Columbus, Ohio, my next career stop. I worked there for The Columbus Dispatch, another dying newspaper. For years, the “Ski Mask Rapist” also known as the “Grandview Rapist,” after the white neighborhood he prowled, had been terrorizing women by breaking into their homes and assaulting them. Finally in 1982, an arrest was announced, no, it was trumpeted. The “Ski Mask Rapist” turned out to be, according to police, Dr. Edward Franklin Jackson, Jr., a prominent young black physician on the staffs of two local hospitals.4 He faced charges stemming from 36 accounts of rape. I got the inglorious assignment of going out to his house in a suburb of Columbus to try to get his wife to comment about his arrest.
I went to the dark spacious looking house, knocked on the door and finally one of his daughters, a teenager, came out and told me her mother wasn’t at home. I went back to the newsroom empty handed.
As the story continued to unfold, much discussion ensued about getting at least a picture of the doctor’s wife – who was white.
I sympathized with the woman who bent her head in the glare of the sunlight. I wondered how much had she known. Sure, her husband had a ski mask that he kept in their closet, but everyone had ski masks in Ohio. Possessing one would not arouse suspicion. His burglary tools were a different story. What internist needs those? How had he been able to keep his schedule of working and raping without making her suspicious? The speculation sunk her and her husband into a pit where racism, sexism, rape culture and ignorance create an impenetrable funk of ugliness.
Dr. Jackson was convicted and sentenced to 282 to 985 years in prison for attacks on two dozen women from 1975-1982. About four years ago, when he was 67, Jackson was denied early release.5 His fate is sealed. Although he is up for parole in 2019, he will likely never live outside a prison again.6 Most rapists, however, will never be charged, let alone spend a day behind bars for rape. In that way, for all his fame and fortune, Cosby has been totally ordinary for a rapist. He has not been convicted of anything. It may be too late to charge him with crimes. There is only his word against more than 50 women who talked about him.
The tragic irony of rape culture is that the rapist doesn’t need to have money or fame or power to keep his victims silent. A meek slightly pudgy pedophile, Larry Don McQuay, once told me in a jailhouse interview that he had abused scores of children. He was convicted of only one, involving the six-year-old son of his ex-girlfriend.7 I doubt the identities of the other children he attacked will ever come to light.
It is for these reasons that I feel very ambiguous about Camille Cosby. I think it’s awful that late in life, she has to deal with such public humiliation, but, at the same time, she has always been her husband’s business manager.8 Her stewardship of his fabulous career and resources was the thing that gave him access to whatever he needed as a high profile man to cow young women into silence. These young women were probably ashamed of themselves for trusting him to act like a gentleman in all settings never thinking they would be believed if they accused him of rape. With his reputation, his power, his money, he could make almost any allegation disappear.
Even if she didn’t know what her husband might have been up to, Camille Cosby is a formidable woman. Both Cosbys have doctoral degrees, and they have doled out millions to colleges. Perhaps their generosity was partly a hedge against any possible attacks on Cosby’s reputation.
Society is quick to question rape survivors about what they did to cause the rape to happen. These women who accused Cosby of assaulting them have been called liars and sluts just as often as they have been applauded for finally coming forward.
Serial rapists are among us wherever we go. Bill Cosbys and Dr. Edward Jacksons are everywhere: fraternity houses, the military, workplaces, in our own homes, everywhere. So we have to change rape culture. We have to take rape seriously as an act of violence and coercion no matter what the victim seemed to have done to supposedly bring on the victimization. We should not allow euphemisms to cloud our understanding of what happens in rape. We have to remember that an unconscious, high, buzzed, or intellectually challenged person is not to be overpowered and attacked.
Perhaps that is the lesson of Cosby, anyone who sexually assaults someone commits a crime.
Victims deserve to be listened to and treated with dignity. It should not take 30 or 40 years for intimidated victims to come forward and tell their stories. The allegations surrounding Bill Cosby reminds us that the nice doctor down the street could be capable of committing rape.
Race, money and the existence of persecution of black people do not exempt anyone from being called out as a criminal, nor do they mean that every black person is guilty of any crime. The important thing is the vigorous investigation and prosecution of rapists.
And, remember, we all know survivors and so should come to know their stories, so we can validate and help them heal.
As a survivor myself, I know what that can mean.
- Isaac, Jean. “Open Letter to Mr. Bill Cosby.” Feb. 25, 1980, Post-Tribune. ↩
- Wellman, W.F. “Bill.” “Holiday Star Theater,” It’s Made to Sell, not to Drink. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, p. 312-313. ↩
- Peltz, Jennifer and Mary Claire Dale. “To Some who Stood by Cosby, his Admission is a Turning Point,” The Times NWI.com, Associated Press, July 8, 2015. (Web) ↩
- “Ohio Doctor Accused of 36 Rapes, Man Jailed for 2 of them is Freed,” The New York Times, Sept. 24, 1982. (Web) ↩
- Johnson, Alan. “Early Release? Not for Ohio’s Older Inmates,” April 30, 2012. The Columbus Dispatch. (Web) ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Smith, Starita. “Inmate wants to Escape Obsession,” July 15, 1995, Austin American-Statesman. (Web) ↩
- Lavoie, Denise. “Camille Cosby is Deposed in Massachusetts Defamation Case,” Feb. 2016, Associated Press. (Web) ↩