But He Seemed Like Such a Nice Guy

A highly-respected local columnist is catching it on Facebook because of a piece he published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entitled “This is the Bill Cosby I Know.” The columnist, Eugene Kane, came to know Bill Cosby after criticizing him for one of his famous rants about ‘all that is wrong about the black community.’

Kane talks about the Bill Cosby he came to know and it’s clear he both likes and admires the guy but, as a journalist, can’t ignore the claims of a growing number of women that Cosby drugged and raped them. No one but the world’s biggest misogynist idiot would advance the idea that over a dozen women are lying or have somehow orchestrated their stories so that they each sounds like the same movie rerun a dozen times. And Eugene Kane, a writer whose work I’ve read for years and who I would trust to have the right, common sense, progressive opinion about 99% of the issues facing our community, is not a misogynist nor an idiot.

Yet his struggle to sync his famous friend’s magnetic personality and good works with the extensively documented pattern of sexual assault gets tangled on the page. It surprises me that Kane, a newspaper reporter before he was a columnist, seems so flummoxed by this. Even I know that most really bad guys act pretty darn regular most of the time. Rapists don’t run around raping people 24/7. They have jobs. They go to school. They raise children, go to their mom’s on Thanksgiving. People can be really, really bad guys and still say ‘excuse me’ when they belch and drive nice in bad traffic.

The acute discomfort that so many seem to feel because of their inability to reconcile Cosby’s American’s Dad image with the rapist label reminds me of the years of denial exercised by Penn State about Jerry Sandusky’s repeated sexual abuse of young boys. In that case, Sandusky was even caught showering with a little boy in the Penn State locker room. But that wasn’t enough to take action. Apparently, the Penn State administrators were stuck in the same ‘I don’t get it’ place that Eugene Kane describes so well. How could a well-known coach working with the revered Joe Paterno at THE Pennsylvania State University actually be a child rapist?

Just doesn’t compute. Bad guys don’t do things like coach college football, stand on the sidelines on beautiful fall days, waiting for the Penn State marching band to finish playing “The Nittany Lion.” So because his crimes didn’t fit the wholesomeness of college football, everyone filed accusations about his sexual abuse of children in a small folder in the back of the cabinet. Oh, the accusations were there, all right, but hard to get to, shadowy, and more and more discredited the longer left untouched.

Now, what happened to Jerry Sandusky is happening to Bill Cosby. First one person and then another and another went into the file cabinet and started added a lot of paper to that thin folder. The first person in each case was the strongest person, the one who could only hope to get all of their story told before the first critic started with the shaming and ridicule. Picture this: you are one person with a couple thousand dollars in the bank, maybe you have a family or not, but you have a job and no one at your job has any idea about your past even though what happened to you at the hands of a rapist makes you sick every time you think about it which is pretty much every day and you are now going to stand up in front of the world and accuse a very famous and very rich person of a terrible crime. At this point, there’s no army of victims standing with you. You are a tiny person in a canyon.

In both the Cosby and Sandusky cases, it required a steady, unrelenting stream of accusers for the accusations to stick and for the authorities, the press, the public to acknowledge ‘ah well, where there’s smoke there’s fire,’ in these cases, a line of smoke for incidents old and new, bridging decades, a smoldering forest fire running the whole length of the Rocky Mountains. Yes, the smoke would be a very big tip-off.

On the flip side of the impossible to accuse are the quickly accused. In these cases, generally involving young African American men, accusations of criminal behavior are so absolutely in sync with what people already think about them, there is no struggle to align the crime with the person. The same incongruity that seems to be giving us fits with Bill Cosby doesn’t exist with this group. Central city black man robs somebody on the street. No surprise here, no need to have it happen a hundred times before we get it. Once is plenty. Compare and contrast.

In the end, I sympathize with Mr. Kane’s quandary. He seems to find it hard to believe the accusations against Bill Cosby because to do so would negate what he believes he knows about the man. That, in turn, would call into question his own ability to read people, to sort out the bad guys from the good guys and, Lord knows, we all think we can do just that. We steer clear of the former and hang out with the latter. We don’t like getting that mixed up, our own taxonomy of goodness and badness has kept us out of trouble all these years. Why does Bill Cosby have to go and screw that up?

Good question, my friend. But not the most important one. What we need to ask is this: what happens next?

Complicit: How We Propagate Rape Culture

Rape culture is aided and abetted by many things. Music that hypes the domination of women by men, the sexual objectification of girls and young women in clothing, media depictions, and everyday language, and the eschewing of feminism by women themselves all pile up to create an environment where boys consider themselves to be ‘more than’ and girls let them think that way.

The wrenching stories of teen girls who were victimized, raped and humiliated by groups of boys in person and then forever on the internet correctly paint the perpetrators as villains. The young boys who thought it was okay to click cell phone photos of a fellow student being raped and quickly pushed the Facebook publish button, the new, more deadly version of the locker room brag, weren’t trained to be rapists and girls wasn’t trained to be raped.

Or were they?

Years ago, in the heat of an intense debate with co-workers about sexism, one co-worker blurted out to me, “You think all men are rapists. Don’t you?”

Yes, I did. I’m not so sure now. Then I believed that the extreme power imbalance between men and women made women vulnerable to anything men wanted to do to them: oppress them in the workplace, keep checking accounts out of their hands, make sure they couldn’t get a mortgage, get them fired from teaching jobs because they were pregnant, keep them from voting, make it impossible to get safe birth control, and, depending on where they lived in the world, keep them completely covered, swathed in cloth. Now some of the more dramatic manifestations of sexism have disappeared, at least in the U.S., but its ghosts are lurking everywhere.

The most dangerous thing about gender inequality is that women are not only ‘lesser than’ but deserving of their powerlessness, they’re weaker, less able, dependent. These ideas are very dangerous for women because although male power can often be felt as protection, it can also be a terrible weapon. In one respect, rape culture is a manifestation of our having taught young boys, not intentionally, not hatefully, but subtly in tiny every day doses, that they are better than girls. Look around you today. Are you doing this with your sons? Are you worshipping your sons? Are you leading them to believe they are ‘more than’ girls?

As hard as it is to imagine that adoring, conscientious parents might be cultivating rapists, it is harder to think that we are grooming our girls to be raped. Every time we, as parents, buy into a culture, marketplace, language that sexually objectifies young girls and women, we’re putting another small log on the fire of oppression. A recent article in Psychological Science (Calogero, 2013) found that women with higher levels of self-objectification, defining themselves primarily in terms of their physical appearance and attractiveness to men, were significantly less likely to challenge gender inequality. To me, this signals the most sickening aspect of oppression, that is, when the oppressed believe in the superiority of the oppressor.

In other words, they had bought it. They believed that their value in the world was an external one, a visible one. The notion that their appeal to men was their most important feature had been instilled in them how, where?

In the same way that no boy baby is born a rapist, no girl baby is waiting to be oppressed. Our babies are getting these little daily drips of message from somewhere. Shall we guess where?

If girls are focused on being accepted by boys and are convinced that their worth is bound up in how much one boy or two boys or all the boys at school like them, they are in constant peril. And so are the boys. Girls whose self-worth is externally defined by boys’ acceptance are sitting ducks for drinking too much, being separated from friends, and being victimized. Boys who’ve grown up with high doses of ‘more than’ forget every lecture their mother ever gave them. The result is horrible.

Everyone is complicit in this set-up. No single boy, no single girl, no single set of hysterical and self-questioning parents is responsible. We create and recreate the train wrecks by refusing to see where the tracks are going and spending the time necessary to uproot them and rebuild in a better direction. We give gender inequality a stronger reach every time we let yet another women’s right be snatched, every time we ho-hum inequality in the workplace and the paycheck, look the other way when sports heroes batter their partners, and buy 7-year old girls black leggings with lace trim like I did just last week. I looked at them in her dresser drawer yesterday and wondered, “What am I saying here? What’s my message?”

We can’t do all these things as children grow day by day and then when they’re teens give them the lecture about respecting girls and respecting themselves. By then, it’s too late. The trains are already on the horizon.

Gender inequality is the foundation of gender oppression in every form. If we raise our girls and boys as feminists, teaching each that no one is more than or less than the other, rape culture can be gutted. Pogo was right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”