We spoke to Barbara Bowman, one of the women allegedly raped by Bill Cosby, about overcoming sexual assault and helping others to do so as well.
In 2004, a woman named Andrea Constand filed a lawsuit against Bill Cosby alleging that he had drugged and sexually assaulted her.
According to her account, she visited Cosby at his home in January 2004. He offered her three blue pills, which he said were herbal medication. After ingesting them, she claims, she began to feel weak. Cosby directed her to a sofa, where she fell into a state of semiconsciousness. As she lay there, Cosby "touched her breasts, rubbed his penis against her hand, and digitally penetrated her." She eventually lost consciousness and woke up at 4 AM, with her clothing disheveled and her vagina raw.
Horrifyingly, her account wasn't unique: 13 other women, ten of whom chose to remain anonymous, were scheduled to testify that he had sexually assaulted them as well. But then Cosby and Constand went on to settle out of court, and the plaintiff agreed to not discuss the allegations any further. The majority of the witnesses remained anonymous in the aftermath of the settlement, but some spoke to reporters—in 2006, three women spoke to Philadelphia Magazine. They all alleged that Bill Cosby had drugged them and either sexually assaulted them or attempted to.
Despite all of this this, Cosby emerged more or less unscathed and continued to enjoy a successful career as America's Favorite Dad. Thirteen women were willing to testify in a court of law that Cosby had attacked them, and America responded by rapidly and completely forgetting all about it.
This year, with Cosby poised to star in a new show on NBC, the allegations resurfaced —albeit rather slowly. Although two of his alleged victims spoke to Newsweek in February, there wasn't serious, sustained focus on the story until Hannibal Buress called him a rapist in a stand-up routine that went viral. Even after that, Cosby joined Twitter, and, rather myopically, asked users to "meme" him. They did: soon, grinning images of Bill Cosby emblazoned with text like "AMERICA'S FAV DAD BY DAY, SERIAL RAPIST BY NIGHT" and "I HAVE BEEN ACCUSED OF RAPE BY 13 WOMEN IN THE PAST 8 YEARS!" were splashed across the Internet. Finally, it seems, Bill Cosby's despicable history is catching up with him.
Barbara Bowman is one of Cosby's alleged victims. In 2004, she went public with her account; she, too, says that Cosby drugged and raped her. The alleged attacks took place when she was 19 and an aspiring actress. In an in-depth interview with the Daily Mail, she recently described the nature of their relationship and his alleged abuse. According to Bowman, Bill Cosby acted as her mentor and promised her that he would help her become a successful actress. One night in particular, she says, Cosby invited her to dinner at his apartment. Although she only had a single glass of wine, her next recollection is waking up slumped over a toilet bowl, wearing only underwear and a man's white t-shirt, while Cosby held her hair back. Bowman says that the drug-facilitated assaults continued over the course of their working relationship: "I know for sure he forced himself multiple times upon me," she told the Mail.
Bowman spoke to People in 2006 and Newsweek this year, but no one really gave a shit until now. Now that the world is paying attention at last, she hopes that sharing her story will empower other victims to come forward and to stop feeling ashamed.
Although the story has gained a great deal of traction, Bill Cosby continues to remain silent. Over the weekend, he was asked about the allegations directly on NPR. He responded by saying nothing and shaking his head repeatedly. On Sunday, his lawyer released a statement to the AP calling the allegations "discredited" and insisting that "Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment." The same day, another victim came forward and claimed that Cosby had raped her twice when she was 19.
I spoke to Barbara about her experience with Cosby, her advocacy for victims of sexual assault, and how she overcame her shame.
VICE: You've been talking about this since 2006. And several other women have come forward as well, but none of it seemed to stick until now. What has it been like to watch your story slowly, slowly pick up traction?
Barbara Bowman: It's been very, very frustrating because it's the typical roadblock of what a victim goes through, especially when you're dealing with someone like Bill Cosby with all the power and the money and the fame. It's so unbelievable. It was even more unbelievable then than it is today.
What happened when you first tried to come forward?
Back then, I was a little kid. I was 18 years old. I was from Denver, Colorado, and I had an agent who believed I had some promise. She was friends with Bill Cosby, and he came to town, and she introduced me. He was supposed to groom me and mentor me, and they were going to bring me to New York and launch my acting career. I was subsidized by Cosby and my agent. I was living in New York City in a very, very isolated, very controlled environment, and the only thing I was allowed to do was go to acting classes and come home or go with Bill Cosby. I was terrified of her and I was terrified of him, and I felt like a captive.
When I finally got the courage up [to come forward about the assault]—I was so broken down and confused and scared—my agent didn't do anything. I was terrified for her to think that anything was going on because I knew she wouldn't believe me. And she didn't believe me.
Everybody loved Dr. Huxtable. He was America's favorite dad, everybody wanted him to be their dad. I wanted him to be my dad. [My allegations] just went away. I was laughed out of the attorney's office, and my agent didn't believe me. I felt completely crushed. I felt alone. I thought, "Nobody is ever, ever going to believe me." So I just regrouped and put it behind me, and I filed it away.
Do you think the fear of facing professional fallout also played into their refusal to believe you?
Yes. I think that happens a lot. I think that happens with the media, too, which is why it's taken so long for this to catch on with the mainstream media. They're scared, too. They have relationships with these people. One hand washes the other, and if they make an enemy of a celebrity, then they've cut a tie. They've burned a bridge.
It's hard to take a stand against one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
He needs weak, powerless, controllable women who won't fight back or who can't fight back. By introducing drugs into the mixture and doping up women, he puts you into a position where you can't do anything. You do not have any control. I've had some victims reach out to me since the Daily Mail article came out, random women who are also victims of Bill Cosby who are not documented, who found me and reached out to me and gave me their story who will not talk. I'm working on them, but they will not talk. Some of them escaped by crawling out of the door and crawling into the street and somehow getting home, barely conscious.
So, why did you decide to speak publicly about what happened to you?
In 2004 or 2005, the other victim came forward and filed a lawsuit. That's when I said, "I will not sit in silence any more. I'm going to support this woman." Because they were dragging her through the mud. They didn't believe her story. I said, "Well, I believe her. Because it happened to me, almost to a tee."
It comes and it goes, it comes and it goes. It's very frustrating. Now, it's picked up momentum and the masses are listening. People are listening. Finally, they're listening.
But because our culture is so primed to blame women, there are still some people who react by saying, "Well, she accepted all of his help and then went to his apartment alone. What was she expecting?"
It's victim-blaming. There are so many dynamics to being a victim. It is a very scary place to be. It is a very difficult thing for a woman to admit to. In many cases, the people doing the violating are trusted individuals. It is from people who gain our trust. We let them into our personal life because they tell us we can trust them. It's our teachers, it's our family members, it's our pastors at our churches. It's Bill Cosby. And he had the ability to hide very, very well behind his tight circle of protectors.
The point you made in your op-ed, that no one really paid attention to your story until a man brought it up, really resonated with me. There are so many instances of this. It's almost literally quantifiable: how many women, versus one man, does it take to make people believe the abuse is real?
My goal and my motivation has always been to raise public awareness. To encourage the other victims who did not come out. In my case, there were 13 of us scheduled to testify in a court of law. I was willing, ready, and able. I put my name out there. Three of us did. Ten of us did not. Those Jane Does, to this day, are still too afraid to come out.
I joined an advocacy organization called PAVE. We're a national educational service organization that talks to victims of all ages. Through action and education, we empower these women to give them voices. To let them know: "You need to tell your story. Don't go to bed at night keeping this a secret. It doesn't help you, and it doesn't help them." If we cannot and do not have the courage to speak out and tell other people what's going on, these things won't change. And the perpetrators will keep on raping and keep on drugging and keep on taking advantage of women and keep us silent.
By the way, it's not just women. There are men out there suffering, too, and they don't get talked about enough.
There's an extra stigma to that, too.
Absolutely. It's almost like our culture expects women to endure it. We're women, that's the way it's supposed to be. [There's this idea that] it doesn't happen to men—men do it to women; men don't do it to men, and women don't do it to men. That's not true. Moving forward, I want to focus on this.
I am not a victim anymore. I am a victim's advocate. It's one of the most powerful lessons I'm going to teach my 12-year-old daughter. She's the most amazing, wisest young lady that I know. She sees what her mom's doing. She sees her mom reaching out and helping and refusing to stay in that place of victimhood.
What do you think of Cosby's new NBC show?
I'm really disappointed to see that they are ignoring what's going on and his dark past and that they're willing to put him back on TV as a father figure. He'll be sending the same messages that he crumbles by his actions—giving sound, wonderful, honest, loving, wise fatherly advice to his daughters and granddaughters. He's not the messenger that I want to hear that coming from.
With the rise of social media, it's harder to control the narrative and harder to convince people that the public image of oneself is necessarily true. Another reason this story got so big, for instance, was his idiotic decision to invite people to meme him.
Social media can be your best friend or your biggest enemy. I'm grateful that we have it now. Now, if we had had social media back then, I don't know that this would have been what it is. Because people weren't talking then. It was a different era.
The statute of limitations, in my opinion, should be abolished. That is one of the legislative platforms that I'm going to take on through working with PAVE. That is to get rid of the statute of limitations for sexual crimes. Because it is not cut and dry. It is not easy for a woman to come to grips with [being sexually assaulted], especially when you're dealing with the circumstances I was dealing with. Especially when it's not a stranger.
It takes so long to find your voice. I didn't have that voice; for 17 years I didn't have it. When I started to talk publicly in 2004 and 2005 and decided that I wasn't going to be a Jane Doe, even then, I was so scared. I just kind of peeked out of my dark hole and told a little bit, and then I crawled back in. And then I told a little more and tested the waters, and then I tested the waters more. I started to slowly feel comfortable with myself to come forward. Some women never find that voice.
I'm hoping that I'm reaching victims, I'm reaching survivors, I'm reaching people. I hope that people will hear and listen and see and pay attention to everything and this will save someone's life.
It sounds like you're already reaching a lot of people.
I am, and I'm grateful. I'm so sorry it took so long. I can't say why. I think it was just a perfect storm of things falling into place. I think moving out of the era of darkness and into—you know, the social media certainly helps, it opens the doors of communication in so many ways. There were a lot of different stepping stones along the way to get us to this point. I'm just glad to be here. I'm glad that people are listening. I'm happy to go on air. Anytime anyone wants to talk to me, I am wide open to do so because this is a message that has to get out there.
What other things will you be doing with PAVE?
I'm going to be doing some public speaking and doing some touring around the country, speaking to students and other interested groups. But, mainly, I'd like to focus on upcoming, aspiring models and actresses and target some of the different casting directors, put on seminars, we're going to create some literature to put out there.
How do you feel now that you're speaking openly and using your experiences to help others?
When [the allegations] started coming out, I was uttering things I'd never uttered before. It was so embarrassing. I felt dirty just saying it. That's the shame that I lived with that nobody needs to live with, and I hope that we can shatter the silence by being open and having open dialogue about it.
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