Should Cosby lose Medal of Freedom? Here's another option

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: Use the political energy directed at Cosby to help women victims of sexual assault
  • She says for starters, pass laws to fix underreporting of campus rape; send assault cases in military to independent prosecutor

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Sometimes there's the easy thing to do, the hard thing to do -- and a third option.

At a White House press conference on Wednesday, President Obama suggested there is no way to revoke Bill Cosby's Presidential Medal of Freedom. And yet some United States senators have suggested doing just that.
Sally Kohn
The easy thing would be, of course, letting Cosby keep his award. The hard thing, procedurally it seems -- if not (maybe) politically -- would be finding a way to revoke it. But there's another option: spend that political energy and legislative power on helping millions of women like those who say they were attacked by Cosby, and who need and deserve our government's help.
    While declining to comment on the specific allegations against Cosby, Obama made clear, "If you give a woman -- or a man, for that matter -- without his or her knowledge a drug, and then have sex with that person without consent, that's rape. And I think this country, any civilized country, should have no tolerance for rape." And hopefully, we don't.
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    Dozens of women made accusations against Cosby over the past several months, but it took unsealed testimony from Cosby himself to finally sink his reputation. Perhaps we have no tolerance for rape. But we seem to have infinite tolerance for casting doubt on accusations of rape, and the accusers themselves, until or unless somehow corroborated by the assailant. That is a part of what's called "rape culture" -- of which we are definitely too tolerant a society. Worse, we actively perpetuate it.
    Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill have both publicly supported a petition calling on the White House to revoke Cosby's Medal of Freedom. Doing so, says Gillibrand, would "set a clear example that sexual assault will not be tolerated in this country." Which is true, of course, and valiant. And if revoking Cosby's Medal of Freedom were a simple thing to do, I'd be all for it.
    Take it away -- ideally in some public shaming ceremony in which the women who allege that they were attacked by him all get to speak out. But if it's not that simple, let's put our political and legislative energy elsewhere.
    How's about, for instance, passing legislation to send military sexual assault cases to independent prosecutors instead of handling them within the military chain of command. This is legislation championed by Gillibrand, though opposed by McCaskill and the military establishment. Why is this so important? A recent Pentagon study found that 62% of women in the military face some kind of retaliation after reporting assault -- suggesting that, at least within the ranks of our own armed forces, we not only tolerate rape and sexual assault but tolerate penalizing the victims.
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    Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have supported Gillibrand's bill, but Obama, despite his assertions about wanting to curb sexual assault and support survivors, has refused to take a position.
    Both McCaskill and Gillibrand support the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which would address the problem of underreporting of rapes and sexual assaults on college campuses, while taking new steps to curb such incidents and support survivors. Just the data collection issues are huge -- especially when such an initiative comes up against conservatives like George Will, who attack the "supposed campus epidemic of rape" (emphasis mine).
    How's about we at least collect complete and accurate data first and then argue about the scope of the problem? The Campus Accountability and Safety Act would also increase training for campus staff and expand coordination with law enforcement. Who can argue that these are not good things to do in a nation that is supposedly intolerant of rape? Let's channel some of our anger at Cosby into passing this law.
    And then Congress and the President could spend some energy on how to help the millions of American women who are raped or sexually assaulted but aren't in college or the military. They need support, too.
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    But we should not stop there. To show America's intolerance for sexual assault, Republicans could stop their repeated efforts to redefine rape and their embrace of manufactured scandals as an excuse to go after organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide counseling, support and health care for survivors of rape and sexual assault. That would be a particularly welcome reprieve from a party that consistently turns off women voters.
    Bill Cosby has been accused over and over by credible women of raping them. He certainly brings great dishonor to the Medal of Freedom. Take it away, don't take it away, whatever. But let's really put our energy to passing laws that support other survivors of sexual assault -- and help prevent future Bill Cosbys.