News Analysis: In Cosby Trial, Treatment of Women by Powerful Men Has Its Day in Court

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In this case, the emotionally charged issues are legion: What happens to women who come forward, in and out of the courtroom. The roadblocks the system puts in the way. The question of who is, and is not, held accountable. When celebrity protects, and when it backfires, intensifying public vitriol. When gender exposes or distorts the issues in play.

More than 40 other women have come forward to describe similar episodes alleging that Mr. Cosby drugged and assaulted them. But the jury was allowed to hear only one other story beside Ms. Constand’s. That was because many of the past cases were civil rather than criminal ones, and defense lawyers persuaded a judge to rule that allowing many others to testify would be like trying Mr. Cosby for other acts, not the one in question, said Elizabeth Schneider, a professor and specialist in gender law at Brooklyn Law School.

Such rulings get to the heart of the challenges of assuring a fair trial for men or women in sexual misconduct, which often takes place without other witnesses. Establishing — or undermining — credibility puts women through arduous legal procedures.

For decades, women who filed rape accusations had to undergo mandatory psychological screening, and judges would caution juries that rape charges were easy to bring and hard to prove. While these barriers fell, juries are still often skeptical, and countless systemic obstacles remain, Professor Schneider said, including the widespread practice of strict secrecy as the price of settlements.


Andrea Constand in Toronto in 1987, as she began a successful basketball career. Credit Ron Bull/The Toronto Star, via Associated Press

Questions such as why Ms. Constand continued to call Mr. Cosby, even leaving him a gift once, are both standard defense tactics and common behavior for women in such cases, she said.

“This is not a surprise to anyone who knows about the complicated reactions women have,” Professor Schneider said. “He’s everyone’s father. Particularly if you were given some medication to knock you out, you have lots of questions afterwards. A part of her didn’t want to believe it really happened. A part of her believed this was a nice older man who was helping her, and she didn’t want to shut the door.”

This imbalance of power often silences women who fear professional and social repercussions.

Katie Packer Beeson, a political consultant and former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney, recounted two incidents she endured at the beginning of her career. An older legislator on a business trip grabbed her crotch, and a lobbyist on a later trip offered to drive her back to her hotel but instead forcibly took her to his hotel, only relenting when he realized she was so obviously distraught he could not get her into his room quietly.

In the first case, she wept that night but decided not to say anything. “I thought, I don’t want to be the tattletale, I don’t want to cause this guy problems. What if he loses the election and we lose the majority?” she said. The Republicans had a one-seat majority in the Michigan Senate at the time. Many years later, she learned he harassed others as well. She did not report the second incident, either, given the lobbyist’s prominence, she said. Although she now encourages women she knows to speak out, she remains pessimistic.

So is Nancy Erika Smith, who represented Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor, in her sexual harassment suit against Mr. Ailes. “Do I think this trial may help move the conversation forward about the impunity that powerful and famous men feel in their interactions with women? I wish I could say I do. It’s no better since Anita Hill because we don’t have power.”

Howard Bragman, a publicist and crisis counselor who represented Cindra Ladd, who accused Mr. Cosby two years ago of drugging and raping her when she was 21 in 1969, said women must be prepared for public shaming, now amplified by social media. “I tell them the pain and suffering they will come through,” he said. “You’ve got to be courageous. Have a support system. You’ve got to lawyer up. It takes money.”

But Laura Kipnis, author of “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus,” argues that there is also a danger that the lessons of the Cosby case can be overdrawn. Mr. Cosby is accused of sexual assault; sexual harassment has been harder to define and, she argues, too broadly applied to cases like a professor taking a student out for a drink.

“Anyone who has institutional power is seen as on the path to being a predator,” she said. “If you follow that line of thinking that all men have power over women, let’s just get rid of heterosexuality.”

Who is seen as a predator can also be bound up with celebrity: It may have helped protect Mr. Cosby for years, Mr. Harris said, but then fueled public obsession with the case. Part of Mr. Cosby’s fame was built on his self-appointed role of guardian of black respectability and occasional scold of other blacks, he said. That made him more vulnerable, and led to a younger black comedian publicly calling him out for hypocrisy, he added.

Whatever the verdict, there is a “whole other cultural narrative about who we choose to believe and believing women,” Mr. Harris said. “Nobody comes out of this clean.”

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