A Cosby Lesson: Power Differentials Silence Assault Survivors at Work

Like many children of the 1980s, I grew up on The Cosby Show. Amid the jokes and physical comedy, the show painted a legendarily wholesome portrait not only of an admirable and loving African-American family, but also of Cosby himself as a male obstetrician who loyally supported and was adored by his female patients and four daughters.

With the recent flood of accusations that Bill Cosby, now 77, allegedly drugged and raped numerous women and girls over the past four decades, this portrait has been painfully upended. Most recently, former supermodel Beverly Johnson—who in 1974 was the first black woman to land the cover of Voguehas spoken out publicly in Vanity Fair. According to Johnson, in the mid-eighties, at the height of The Cosby Show, Cosby lured her to his New York City brownstone with the promise of an audition for the show, and proceeded to drug her and attempt to assault her. Another alleged victim, actress Louisa Moritz, has said publicly that Cosby forced her to perform oral sex on him in a Tonight Show green-room in 1971.

One particularly troubling subplot of the sordid Cosby scandal (and other stories of abuse) is the myriad people who were aware of the attacks, but did not speak out. Barbara Bowman, who was allegedly victimized by Cosby while a teenager, has pointed out the “network of willfully blind wallflowers” who covered for Cosby, including assistants who squired her to hotels, staffers present at Cosby’s house when he assaulted her, and her own agent, who “did nothing.”

As an employment lawyer who represents women who face discrimination and harassment at work, I was particularly moved by Johnson’s account of her decision to stay silent following the attack. She writes:

How could I fight someone that boldly arrogant and out of touch? In the end, just like the other women, I had too much to lose to go after Bill Cosby. I had a career that would no doubt take a huge hit if I went public with my story…

Just as recent stories involving rape at Columbia University and the University of Virginia have shone a spotlight on sexual assault on campus, the Cosby scandal should spark a broader conversation about the sexual safety of women at work. Nearly 1 in 5 women have been raped in their lifetime, and The United States Department of Justice estimates that eight percent of rapes occur while the victim is working. Yet, rape and sexual assault are reported to police at the lowest percentage (24%) when compared to other violence crimes in the workplace. The impact of rape in the workplace is unsurprisingly economic as well as 2000, 36% of rape/sexual assault victims lost more than 10 days of work after their victimization.

Unfortunately, the Cosby story is not just the relic of a bygone era. Even today, differentials of money and power make women and girls vulnerable in the working world. It is incredibly challenging for women to speak out, and when they do, too often their allegations are not treated seriously.

The women victimized by Bill Cosby have been talking about his crimes for more than a decade,” wrote Barbara Bowman, as she considered the fact a male comic spurred the recent reexamination of Cosby’s legacy. “Why didn’t our stories go viral?”

Jennifer Siegel

Jenn Siegel is a jack of all trades who represents employees in discrimination, whistleblower, and labor claims – all from her desk in the NY office of Sanford Heisler, LLP.  Jenn also dedicates significant time to hiking throughout the five boroughs in search of the best bagels and lox, although she occasionally acquiesces to hiking trails within a two-hour radius of the City so long as passable bagels are brought as provisions. 

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