“This is a victory for all of us.”

So said Erika Rosenbaum, a Canadian actor who spoke out last fall about Harvey Weinstein’s “inappropriate behaviour” towards her, when she commented recently on the guilty verdict in the Bill Cosby sexual assault case.

The verdict has elicited similar responses from many women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed by men with social and professional power. It is easy to see why: actor and comedian Cosby was a cultural icon to millions, and his case has been seen as a possible sign of what lies ahead for other celebrities and high-profile men who have been publicly named for their sexually abusive and exploitative behaviour.

Does this decision matter?

Briefly put, yes, this decision matters. Here are some of the ways.

First and perhaps most importantly, it matters to Andrea Constand, the five women who gave similar fact evidence in the trial, and the many other women who have spoken out about Cosby’s sexually assaultive and exploitative treatment of them. These women have shown remarkable strength, courage and determination. They deserve to feel good about the outcome of this case.

As Gloria Allred, a lawyer who has represented many of Cosby’s accusers as well as other survivors of sexual assault, said outside the courtroom:

“We are so happy that finally we can say, women are believed, and not just in a hashtag ‘#MeToo,’ but also in a court of law. After all is said and done, women were finally believed, and we thank the jury for that.”

Our criminal law system was developed to ensure that people who committed wrongs would be held publicly accountable. For this reason, the April 25th guilty verdict by the jury in the Cosby case matters.

It matters to other women – both those who have spoken out and those who have not – who have been sexually assaulted by socially powerful men.

Caroline Heldman of the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media notes that this conviction provides vindication for other survivors, many of whom have turned their trauma into activism.

It matters because it shows that even the powerful are not immune from criminal liability.

This decision reflects the fact that we have turned a corner over the past few years when it comes to sexual assault, so it matters for that reason, too. As Erika Rosenbaum said on The Current,

“Shedding a light on this has changed the culture in a way that it will never be the same.”

Is it enough?

The short answer to this question is no. A guilty verdict, no matter how appropriate, cannot undue a sexual assault or the harm that it causes.

It is one decision, about one man and one complainant, made by one jury in one courtroom.

The media attention paid to this case and to the #MeToo movement may mean that public awareness is increasing, which may mean other juries will be more likely to believe the testimony of sexual assault survivors in future criminal trials.

But the fact remains that sexual assault is significantly under-reported. According to YWCA Canada, there are approximately 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada each year. Out of each 1,000, only 33 are reported to the police, of which 29 are recorded as a crime. Of these, charges are laid in just 12 cases, 6 are prosecuted and 3 lead to a conviction.

Some women are more likely to be believed than others. Until women from marginalized communities, including Indigenous women, women with disabilities, women of colour, lesbians, trans folks, women with mental health or substance use issues, feel safe enough to report sexual violence to the police, individual verdicts in high-profile cases will not be enough.

Greater public awareness about sexual assault and its impact on those who survive it is an important step, but much popular culture continues to reinforce stereotypical notions of gender roles, sex and love that leave women vulnerable to sexual violence in every aspect of our lives.

And, now?

While the field on which sexual violence against women is played out has not been transformed by this decision, we should still acknowledge its significance.

We can best do that by turning our eyes and attention away from the perpetrator of these particular acts of violence and, instead, focussing on all the women who have spoken out about the violence of men, whether famous or not.

And, all of us should remember that every time we speak about the male violence that has been visited on us, we give permission to others to do the same.

One thought on ““This is a victory for all of us.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *