Why reversal of Bill Cosby's conviction may dissuade women from reporting sexual assault

The reversal of Bill Cosby’s conviction sends a message to survivors of sexual assault:
The reversal of Bill Cosby’s conviction sends a message to survivors of sexual assault: "Justice is never going to be served." (Photo: Getty Images)

Bill Cosby was released from prison on Wednesday after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his 2018 conviction for sexual assault — a decision that surprised many and left survivors of sexual assault feeling devastated and disappointed after what seemed to be a step toward justice. The decision may even impact a survivor's decision to report an instance of sexual assault.

"Reporting is very personal and many people may feel dissuaded from reporting for a number of reasons. But one of the top reasons we repeatedly hear from survivors is the fear that they won't be believed," Heather Drevna, the vice president of communications at The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), tells Yahoo Life. "A ruling like this in a high-profile case is really just one more slap in the face."

The nonprofit anti-sexual assault organization released a statement from its president, Scott Berkowitz, in response to the ruling, which reads, "We are deeply disappointed in today's ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and by the message this decision sends to the brave survivors who came forward to seek justice for what Bill Cosby did to them. This is not justice."

That discouraging message that Berkowitz refers to is what women around the country are speaking up about on social media as many question whether reporting sexual assault is worth such a devastating result and point out why so many do not.

"[Survivors] may be looking at this case and seeing this outcome where again, he was convicted, but now he's walking free and just throw their hands up and think, well, why is it even worth it to report?" Drevna explains. "If justice is never going to be served, why put myself through that potential additional trauma of going through reporting and going through a court case and going through the whole legal process?"

While some wonder why people don't come forward with allegations of sexual assault, RAINN provides statistics that show just how often reported cases don't lead perpetrators to jail. In fact, out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 offenders will walk free. And while more than 50 women across the country accused Cosby of sexual assault and misconduct, his story ends the same way.

"One of the reasons that the Supreme Court's ruling feels so devastating to survivors is because this was one of the first high profile cases within the #MeToo movement. It was one of the first times people saw a rich and powerful man held to account for a long history of sexual abuse," Drevna says. "Initially there was a conviction, people felt like justice had been served. And now to see that taken away, it reinforces some of those negative perceptions that the justice system may be stacked against survivors."

Drevna makes sure to note that "the decision yesterday had nothing to do with whether or not Mr. Cosby was guilty. This was a technicality and so that's an important thing to keep in mind, but for survivors that probably doesn't feel very satisfying."

A joint statement by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape echoes a similar sentiment and points out the many obstacles that survivors of sexual assault face when seeking justice.

"The dynamics of this decision remind us that while the criminal legal system is an important avenue for some survivors to seek justice and healing, it cannot be the only one," the statement reads. "This decision does not diminish the progress made during the #MeToo movement. We will continue to hold those who commit sexual violence accountable, regardless of their position in the community, their power, their fame, or their wealth."

The statement goes on to reiterate that the impact of Cosby's release on survivors is "immeasurable" and is leaving many feeling "outraged, retraumatized, and devastated." But even those who haven't been victims of sexual assault are experiencing the disappointment — especially women who feel most at risk.

"Sexual violence is typically seen as a women's issue, and we know that it touches men as well, but I think that's part of why it feels so devastating for women," Drevna says. "It ties back to the fact that this case and the original conviction felt like there was some momentum coming on the heels of the #MeToo moment and leading up to Harvey Weinstein and other cases. And again, feeling like that momentum and that has been snatched out from under people. When you couple that with news that's been going on right now, there's been a lot of mention of sexual violence in the news cycle in this moment. There have been a couple of high-profile cases noted in sports and entertainment right now. We saw a huge cultural moment last week where The Bachelorette was talking about issues of consent. And so I think you see women taking all of this into account and it felt like things were changing and maybe [Wednesday] made things feel like maybe they haven't changed as much as we were hoping they have."

For those who are struggling, whether as a survivor or an ally, Drevna offers the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online chat at online.rainn.org for anonymous, confidential support.

"The most important thing that loved ones can do is to listen and to listen without judgment. On our website, we have a lot of tips for loved ones of survivors, but particularly we talk about our acronym TALK, which is a way of framing how to think about disclosure and listening to the survivors in your life," she says. "Let survivors know it's OK to turn it off — turn off social media, step away from your apps, step away from the TV when news like this is happening. Trying to make choices to support your self-care when things like this are in the media is so, so important."

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline is here for survivors 24/7 with free, anonymous help. 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org.

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