In this Nov. 18, 2013 file photo, actor-comedian Bill Cosby poses for a portrait in New York. A woman who said Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, that Cosby had drugged her and sexually assaulted her in 1979, also accused another famous man of attempted sexual assault: sportscaster Marv Albert, who pleaded guilty to assault and battery the day after her surprise testimony against him.
Cosby accusations eerily similar
04:06 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: 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.

Story highlights

In unsealed testimony, Bill Cosby said he got Quaaludes to give to women he wanted to have sex with

Sally Kohn: Many have disbelieved accounts from dozens of women that Cosby raped or assaulted them in some other way

It's only now that Cosby's own testimony seems to implicate him that the women are believed

CNN  — 

More than 25 women have publicly alleged that, despite his denials, Bill Cosby raped or assaulted them over the course of the past 40 years. But it took the unsealing of court documents for us to finally believe them.

In a sworn deposition unsealed after The Associated Press filed suit to compel its release, Cosby admits that he obtained Quaaludes with the intent of giving the drugs to women he wanted to have sex with. In the testimony, part of a civil suit filed by one of Cosby’s accusers, Cosby’s lawyer told him not to answer a question about whether he had ever given the drugs to any women without their permission or knowledge. But even under the most optimistic interpretation possible, this does not sound like sex. It sounds like rape.

Sally Kohn

Over the past several years, a number of women have stepped forward with harrowing tales – all hauntingly similar – alleging that Cosby manipulated, misled and outright drugged them and then had his way with their listless bodies. A long list of other women allege that he sexually assaulted them in a range of ways. The comedian has never been criminally charged and has vehemently denied wrongdoing.

Let’s be honest, we as a society didn’t take the stories very seriously at first. This was the picture-perfect TV dad, a historic icon and a self-proclaimed pillar of moral society.

After all, the first allegations against Cosby were made public in 2000. Four more victims stepped forward in 2005. And another in 2006. Did you hear about any of those at the time? Was Cosby’s credibility dinged?

No, the news about Cosby’s history was pretty much under the radar, in mainstream media and in the public discourse, until October 2014, when a male comedian, Hannibal Buress, called Cosby a rapist during his standup set in Philly. After Buress, dozens more women spoke up to say that Cosby had raped or assaulted them as well. What might have first been easily dismissed was now being widely discussed.

But it still wasn’t decided. Cosby still had his defenders, especially among those who claimed that rape culture is a fiction of feminists rather than a reality. In the Cosby story, we saw rape culture at work: that dozens of women reporting similar experiences was not enough to conclusively condemn Cosby precisely reinforced the “no one will believe you if you tell anyone” threat that keeps victims silent.

Many did not believe it, even as woman after woman after woman accused Cosby. Some still won’t, despite the court testimony, because they’ll find some loophole to excuse his alleged behavior. To some, the patriarchy must be defended at all costs. To the rest of us, patriarchy – and its unquestioned, unaccountable, often abusive power – is the problem.

In the wake of the botched reporting around the alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia last year, my friend Zerlina Maxwell wrote that we should nonetheless, in general, believe women when they say they were raped. Maxwell was widely attacked for these views.

She meant them not as a statement on the legal burden of proof (Zerlina is, after all, an attorney herself) but a moral commentary on the profoundly problematic phenomenon that we live in a patriarchal society in which – in the “he said, she said” dynamic around rape – we’re more inclined to believe the men. This reinforces the essential dynamics of patriarchy and victim-blaming that enable rape culture in the first place.

In the case of Cosby, we had more than 25 women telling very similar and very sickening stories of alleged rape and assault, but we still didn’t quite believe them until we heard what sounds very much like confirmation – from Cosby himself.

Courts are courts and the legal process, including the burden of proof in criminal and civil cases, must be respected and preserved – and is indeed critical for the many who are falsely accused of crimes, rape or otherwise.

But increasingly, in our media and social media-driven culture, the public trial matters – especially, say, in cases like Cosby’s where the criminal statute of limitations has passed. And in this instance, it appears that we, the people, failed.

Too many of us have continued to doubt these women’s stories, or worse, dismiss them – until men gave us reasons to believe them.

In a January 2015 poll by Public Policy Polling, 41% of Americans were still unsure of whether Cosby was guilty of sexual assault. That our skepticism and desire to excuse or explain away his behavior was so profound – and so wrong – even when we have seen the faces of 25 accusers should give us pause from now on every single time even one woman steps forward.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on

Read CNNOpinion’s Flipboard magazine.