I’m sad about Bill Cosby.
I really am.
For kids that grew up in the 70’s, before the hit tv show, before the Pudding Pops, Bill Cosby was primarily a children’s entertainer. He had his own cartoon, of course, Fat Albert; hey, hey, hey, most people have heard of that. But he also guested on Sesame Street and Electric Company and Captain Kangaroo among other programs. I didn’t really know who he was back then, but I did know he must be some kind of parentally-approved child-friendly-guy since he was always showing up on pretty much whatever I happened to be watching to tell me the alphabet while making googly faces. Bill Cosby was as much a part of my childhood as Mr. Rogers or the principal of my elementary school, just a seemingly nice man who was always popping up with an important lesson that I needed to know.
Over the last half-century, we’ve seen many of our idols revealed to have feet of clay and penises of some sort of unstoppable material. Not only entertainers but scout leaders, teachers, priests, coaches, and government officials including the mayor of my very own hometown have been exposed as predators who used positions of power and intimacy to exploit vulnerable individuals who looked up to them. At this point, I’m no longer surprised by the big reveal, but every time I feel sad. I hate being reminded that something has been taken from me that I’ll never get back. A sense of security that I had as a child is gone. I can no longer rest easy in the assumption that any given man that I encounter isn’t inherently a threat to my children or myself. I can never assume that a man will be kind for no other reason than because they are good people and you are a defenseless kid or a distressed damsel.
To put it plainly – I have to at least consider that every man I encounter may be a predator.
As a child of divorce, this concept of fundamental male decency was especially important to me. I had very limited experience with adult men. I had no older brothers, no cousins, my father and grandfathers and uncles lived far away. We moved constantly and so never formed bonds with friends or neighbors or people from church. Most of my experience with adult males from the time that I was a small girl has been that they want things, first from my mother, and later on from me. I learned first through absorption and later through experience that women have to be constantly on guard against the things that men want, and that we must be prepared to earn their assistance and protection through what we can provide in return. Over time I learned that male benevolence is not always given freely, or at all. But at least growing up, I had the perception that there were decent men in the world because I saw them on TV. Mr. Rogers existed. Bill Cosby existed. Bob and Gordon and Mr. Hooper existed.
There were, of course, bad men in the world, but they were creeps who drove up beside you in cars or strangers who jumped out of alleyways. They were broken and dysfunctional weirdos who lurked on the fringes of society and not at its very heart. They weren’t the kind of people that you would ever be fooled into trusting; you would know them at a glance because they weren’t normal. They couldn’t be normal, because that behavior wasn’t normal. The idea that someone who seemed kind, who you KNEW, even if it was only as a face on the TV screen, might hurt you, might force you into doing something you didn’t want to do, was utterly foreign to me. I believed that the world was full of good guys doing good things not because they were forced to by fear of arrest or exposure or guilt, but because they didn’t even want to do anything but.
Over the years, as more and more layers have been stripped away to reveal a seamy underbelly that I would have vastly preferred not to know about, I feel like that concept has slipped away. I’ve lost something. I think we all have. I’m not actually safe and I never really was. My safety was an illusion that was shattered by Bill Cosby’s Quaaludes. (Quaaludes! Quaaludes begins with the letter Q, kids!) The world is really, truly, actually a place of danger where trusted, even beloved figures are all too often revealed as monsters who will devour you if they have half a chance. You are never safe, not really, not ever.
I’m not saying all men are bad guys. Not at all. There are good men, I know that there are. I have four sons that I am hopefully, hopefully raising to be good men. I am not sure I even believe Bill Cosby is a bad guy. He has done some amazing things with his life, he’s helped people, he clearly wants to be a good person. But then there’s this thing that he did, a decision that he made, a choice that seemed to directly undermine his own personal values. An important minority of seemingly otherwise good and decent men – again, not the creeps in the alleyway, but seemingly decent and functional men – seem willing to take the opportunity to walk this dark path when they stumble onto it. I don’t think it’s because their parents didn’t raise them right or rape culture or video games or horror movies or comic books or detective novels. We want to believe those things are true because we don’t want to face the reality that good men can do bad things sometimes. Sometimes even fundamentally good men will take an opportunity when it arises. Despite the risks, despite the costs, despite the damage they are doing to a fellow human being, despite the potential damage they are doing to their future selves, they are willing to make that choice for 60 seconds of sexual release.
Even from a purely self-interested position, it’s as self-destructive a behavior as a game of Russian Roulette. Every offense is another click of the chamber, every time could be the bullet that blows your life to smithereens. For 60 seconds. And many of them seem either incapable of stopping, or unwilling to. It’s not a one time mistake that scares them straight, it’s not that they messed up once one New Year’s Eve when they’d had too much to drink and had a moment of weakness but never let it happen again. They try it again and again and again, like an addict who shuffles along begging enough spare change for their next hit. But the addict has nothing left to lose. Their lives already suck, they’re not gambling anything they haven’t already lost. Yet so many of these guys are rich and famous and powerful and successful, at the top of their fields, respected by the community. They are gambling everything, even their freedom, for that 60 seconds, not only once, but dozens or even hundreds of times. This doesn’t seem like a choice, it seems like a compulsion.
Louis C.K. famously said, regarding child molesters, that he really, really, really likes Mounds bars, but he doesn’t understand being willing to go to jail to eat one. And I think I agree with him. I cannot wrap my brain around being so desperate for a certain sexual experience that I would risk everything in a fantastic life full of money, power, and prestige, to have it. I can’t even pretend that I understand it. It simply cannot be a rational decision and thus we cannot treat it as such. There is obviously some sort of disconnect in the brains of certain men, where the temptation is so great and/or the fear of detection and punishment is so little that they throw even their own self-interest out the window. All for 60 seconds. The trade is apparently so good they make it again and again. And regarding Louis C.K., I really really, really like Mounds bars too, but I don’t lock people in a room and force them to watch me eating them.
It almost seems like some of these men are afflicted or cursed, plagued by demons that are very nearly out of their control. If, for whatever reason, they are incapable of stopping, they seem worthy of our pity. And I do pity them. I feel sorry for Bill Cosby. But I’m also angry, not only for the sake of his victims, but angry for my family, because my children, my daughter especially, will never know the innocence and freedom that I did, or even that I allowed my two oldest children to enjoy. I don’t send my younger children to camp, I don’t take them to church, I hesitate to let them out of my sight for a moment even among friends and relatives. I don’t allow them to have that freedom because of Bill Cosby and the men like him. And I am angry for my own sake, for what I’ve lost, because not only do I fear for myself at times, I can’t parent my kids without a nagging sense of constant fear that my mother never experienced. I don’t bother to teach my children not to talk to strangers because it is not usually strangers who hurt you. It is the people you know. And who can protect against everyone?
This is the part of the piece where I am supposed to pull some amazing plan or scheme to solve this problem out of my hat. But I don’t think there is a fix for this, and certainly not a quick or easy one. Because this happens so much, I can’t draw any other conclusion other than that it is normal. It’s normal like car accidents and heart disease and forest fires in August are normal – in the sense that while they are terrible, they happen so often that they’re just something you have to accept as part of the cost of doing business with this thing called life.
To live in a world free of the risk of abuse would be to live in a society so structured and strictured it would probably be unlivably hellish, and would be about as effective as Prohibition. The truly determined offenders would find a way; whatever drives them is apparently so compelling that resistance is futile, and the rest of us would be continually punished for their transgressions. We’d have to put up with constant intrusions into our privacy, strongarmed into policing our behavior, with well-meaning busybodies holding everyone to a standard we neither want nor need in order to prevent even the slightest appearance of impropriety. Something I’ve learned over my life is that it’s damn hard to avoid even the appearance of impropriety when those around you are highly motivated to seek it out. When you cast a wide net, you end up catching everyone in it. And all too often the big fish swim around the net anyway because you’re so busy dealing with the minnows.
I’m not unreasonable, I do think we could do a better job of designing our institutions to avoid temptation for those not-entirely-bad-guys who experience it and at influencing our culture to further use the power of social pressure to further nip the inclination in the bud. But there will be a cost, a price to be paid in terms of freedom for everyone, and we must proceed with very great caution before sacrificing that freedom in pursuit of an unreachable goal. We are not going to be able to prevent all assaults, and we certainly won’t be able to prevent all harassment. We cannot set that expectation as our bar. If we try, it would be a recipe for disaster, for misery. No one wants to talk about that cost but it is real and it is high. It may be too high and we as a society need to make a rational analysis of cost vs. benefit before we really do go all Handmaid’s Tale on ourselves in pursuit of an unreachable goal.
I don’t want to change the culture. There’s a lot to like about our culture, for women most of all, and anyone who says otherwise needs to read more history books. We have a level of freedom that women have never experienced, EVER. And I like having that freedom. I enjoy the hell out of it, as a matter of fact. I don’t want to wear modest clothes if I don’t want to and have to forgo friendships with males and be constantly worried about what the neighbors say if I laugh too loud or have a drink at a bar or say naughty words now and then. (Now, I may choose to hold myself to those standards voluntarily, but that’s a different matter than being forced into it by the clucking tongues of prying busybodies or the guidelines of thick workbooks handed out by HR.) Loosening up on some of these cultural mores has been a step FORWARD for women, not back. I would even reserve the right to put myself into a dangerous situation if I so choose. That’s not anyone else’s call to make but my own. And as a feminist I have a not-so-sneaking suspicion that somehow, some way the burden of these cultural changes will fall heaviest on we the fairer sex, primarily serving to make women less free while leaving men pretty much the same. Just seems to be the way it generally goes.
So while we must acknowledge the reality that a certain percentage of usually-male people will take the opportunity to act badly when it presents itself, and then prevent those opportunities, inasmuch as we can, we have to stop short before going so far as to basically put us all in a prison forever. As it is now, it is like we expect angels to inhabit the earth, take no precautions even the most basic and obvious ones, and then act surprised when it is demonstrated time and again that we’re surrounded by mere mortals. And as the dust settles, people call for changes to culture and society that will leave all of us worse off, less free, less happy.
For starters, we can, indeed must, do a better job of warning potential victims about the risks. I don’t mean terrifying children with stories of Big Bad Wolves around every corner because stranger abductions are so statistically rare you’re basically frightening kids with the Boogeyman. I mean warning potential victims about real threats, the ones that come in the guise of a potential friend. Telling young people, particularly in places like Hollywood or while they’re away at college, things like “hey maybe don’t just take any old drugs that people give you” or “don’t drink yourself blind”. And this isn’t blaming victims, it is just a sensible precaution to warn people about. Duh. It seems ridiculous that we’ve made a lucrative industry from fingerprinting terrified children and indoctrinating them with never-talk-to-strangers only to skip over warning teens and young adults about the actual risks that come along with intoxication, using “but men shouldn’t rape” as an excuse for sending young people out into the world thinking that partying yourself into unconsciousness is devoid of risk. Yes, men shouldn’t rape, but they DO rape. Even women have raped. Look out for number one, ladies and gents. Forewarned is forearmed.
And it seems only obvious by now, but perhaps we should step away from the custom of leaving teenagers in the one-on-one care of an older unrelated adult unsupervised. Even though many of us have great memories of trips with teachers and church groups it’s probably just not a great idea to do it one-on-one, that’s all. And how about possibly, going out on a crazy, crazy limb here, advising women and men too for that matter in every industry that taking meetings in hotel rooms is probably a bad idea. That’s what offices are for, people. Preferably glass-walled ones surrounded by nosy personal assistants. These things are small things. Obvious things. Not invasive things. It seems to me self-evident that reasonable people can suggest taking sensible precautions without trading our wonderful and unprecedented freedom in pursuit of a goal that can never be reached.
But all that having been said, my innocence is still gone. And it’s not coming back any time soon. Nothing we do is going to bring that back, unfortunately. You can’t shut the barn door after the horse has escaped.
It’s better, it’s obviously better for potential victims know about possible threats to prevent them, it’s better to act sensibly and take precautions, but gosh, I wish we didn’t HAVE to prevent them and I wish we didn’t need quite so many precautions. Ignorance really was bliss, in retrospect. Growing up as a regular dumb kid naive and defenseless and admittedly, lucky, was better than the way I feel now. It was better than generations of children terrified by the kidnapper behind every bush and parents like me afraid to let their kids join Boy Scouts or the church youth group. I think we adults need to get our stuff together so kids can have childhoods again.
I prefer that innocent fantasyland I dwelled in as a child where there were good guys and bad guys, and the good guys weren’t just horny guys who hadn’t had the chance to turn bad yet. Even though it was only a fantasy, it was a decent way to grow up and we owe it to our children to let them enjoy that innocence as well, to believe in a world where there really are good men who just want to teach you the damn alphabet.
Image by tedeytan