Power, Position, Prestige - and deafening silence
Every closed eye is not sleeping, and every open eye is not seeing.
- Bill Cosby
I used to be a huge Bill Cosby fan. I was a fan long before his days as Dr Cliff Huxtable, the patriarch of the Huxtable family in The Cosby Show (it never occurred to me to query then why it was called The Cosby Show when the main character was Dr Huxtable, but I suspect narcissism is the answer. But I digress...)
When he was just a comedian, I used to listen to many audio recordings of his comedy routines including Fat Albert (“Fat Albert had a car”) and his hilarious take on parenthood (“I ran out of petrol, just shutting the car door”). When he starred in The Cosby Show as Dr Huxtable, the head of a household of five children with a working wife (a lawyer, no less) it was both hilarious and honest, and he became much admired as not just a comedian, but a successful TV star and an admired family man. Many grieved when his only son was killed in a tragic accident, because they felt they knew him.
Sadly my fan girl days for Bill Cosby are long gone with the increasingly long line of women alleging sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape at his hands. At last count there were more than 50 women who have come forward with these allegations.
I am far from a fan of trial by media; however even if only 10% of the claims are true, they are horrifying. It is not a numbers game — that figure of 10% is to answer the many people who are asking 'why now?', and 'are they just in it for the money?'. Let’s assume for a moment that all of the claims are true (and note that none of these claims have yet been tested in Court) — how is it possible for a man to avoid prosecution or publicity over the course of such a long career of harassing women?
The answer is that power, prestige and position engender silence.
Clint Smith (educator and poet), in an excellent, and short, TED talk on the danger of silence, said:
“Silence is the residue of fear.”
He was not talking about sexual harassment specifically, but his words are very true.
In my work as an Investigator, I find that very often women who claim to have been sexually harassed have been reluctant to make the allegations, and this is largely borne out of fear. They are still fearful even once they have plucked up the courage to come forward- and that decision is not taken lightly.
Fear takes many forms. One of them is fear for your job. For example, I once listened to a single mother of two children who was, or had been, on probation in a new job when she experienced sexual harassment. She said at the time that she feared being terminated while on probation if she raised the issue at the time. She said “What chance did I have of succeeding in bringing this to a good resolution, when he could have terminated me at any time, and for no reason? I had two children to feed and I needed that job”. Unfortunately she tolerated sexual harassment and, from what she told me, sexual assault for fear of being sacked, until she found another job and left. She left, and her boss is probably treating someone else the same way.
Another very genuine fear for women is job prospects. If the person doing the harassing is someone with decision making power over salary or promotions, raising an allegation of sexual harassment can put someone in a difficult position, particularly when there was no one else able to make that kind of decision. Also, in a structure where the perpetrator is the only one 'talking up' to his immediate supervisor, the likeliood of support is perceived as low.
In Bill Cosby’s case, many of the women were young actresses hoping for a “break” in the industry who needed to work, and the old adage that “You’ll never work in this town again” was no doubt going through their minds at the thought of raising an allegation against the much loved Bill Cosby, after the shock of discovering that the person they were meeting with was not the loveable Cliff Huxtable, but a sexual predator.
Fear of not being believed is another very genuine fear that women have. And this is more relevant where the perpetrator does have power, prestige and position. Who would believe that Dr Cliff Huxtable, the loveable father of five (and note Bill Cosby was also a “happily married” father of five children at the time) could be responsible for such despicable acts?
The same goes for senior men in organisations who appear to have a lot of power and prestige that goes with their position. When men put on a public face of being happily married, a good boss, kind to animals, or whatever else they want people to believe, it is hard for people to believe they could be capable of assualt or sexual harassment. In fact, peopld don't want to believe it.
At work, as much as in Hollywood, women fear not being believed, fear losing their jobs or fear that their careers will stall if they speak up.
Silence can be deafening. Shame associated with the events surrounding the allegations can also be responsible for the silence around this issue. In cases where alcohol or drug use is involved, after hours, many women feel partially or completely responsible for what happened and do not want the spotlight turned on them, questioning their own behaviour and their contribution to the events that transpired. This is so akin to victim blaming in rape cases it’s not funny — it's just a question of degrees. In the words of Beverly Johnson in Vanity Fair:
“I sat there still stunned by what happened the night before, confused and devastated by the idea that someone I admired so much had tried to take advantage of me, and use drugs to do so. Had I done something to encourage his actions? …
For a long time I thought it was something that only happened to me, and that I was somehow responsible. So I kept my secret to myself, believing this truth needed to remain in the darkness. But the last four weeks have changed everything, as so many women have shared similar stories, of which the press have belatedly taken heed.”
Shame is easy to come by; hard to get rid of. A client I spoke to recently said that she once offered to drive her very drunk boss home from a work function, and that he made a pass at her in the car — at the time she was embarrassed but made no complaint. However, having rejected his advances, she then became the target of bullying behaviour. When she plucked up the courage to speak to HR, the first words she was greeted with was 'Why on earth did you get into a car with him?'. The first reaction was to somehow hold her responsible for his actions.
What is interesting is that in the Bill Cosby case, once someone came forward, other alleged victims of Bill Cosby have also come forward and their stories are disturbingly similar. In workplaces, it is unlikely that someone who indulges in the sexual harassment of female employees does it only once. Whilst silence can be golden, it can also mean that the act goes unpunished and other women will suffer the consequences.
Break the silence. Tell your truth.