Bill Cosby's release sends clear message for an alarming new era

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Victoria Valentino, one of the women who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, says that the decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to vacate Cosby's conviction was a "gut punch" and came out of the blue.

Posted: Jul 1, 2021 11:31 AM
Updated: Jul 1, 2021 11:31 AM

Bill Cosby, who has been accused of misconduct by 60 women, was released from prison Wednesday after Pennsylvania's Supreme Court overturned his sexual assault conviction. That he is a free man today sends a profoundly disturbing message to women who survive sexual assault: that if they come forward they will confront all but insurmountable hurdles as they pursue justice.

In 2018, Cosby was convicted by a jury of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in 2004, but the court ruled that a deal he struck with a prosecutor to avoid prosecution in exchange for a deposition in a civil case had been improperly used against him, and that he should not have been charged in the criminal case.

Recall that Cosby has been accused of misconduct by 60 different women. "I have always maintained my innocence," he tweeted on Wednesday.

Of course, Cosby is an octogenarian who played a TV dad back in the 1980's and early 1990's. Modern celebrities, on the other hand, live on the Internet and in what we may like to believe are more enlightened times. In fact it might be tempting to think that things have changed since 16 years ago, when Cosby was alleged to have committed the sexual assault for which he was convicted. Since then, we've seen lots of women come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment, assault and violence as part of the #MeToo movement.

Some may therefore perceive that norms have changed and men know that they can't get away with this kind of behavior anymore because women are speaking out.

But that is untrue.

If anything, since Cosby's time, the world has become less safe for women -- thanks to the very place the #MeToo movement originated. While researching a book about women and the Internet, I have discovered that sexual violence against women is regularly enabled online in new and ever more dangerous ways.

Cosby is alleged to have met his victims in person. Today, there are many tools that match sexual offenders with women, making it even easier for perpetrators to find victims.

They're called dating apps.

In 2019, Columbia Journalism Investigations conducted a survey -- which it warned wasn't scientific -- of 1,200 women in America who said they had used dating apps. More than a third of the women said they were sexually assaulted by someone they met through one of these apps. This figure is staggering. If it's anything close to accurate, sexual violence is becoming astonishingly commonplace.

In fact, a spokesperson for The Match Group, a Dallas-based company that owns dozens of dating companies, told the investigative reporters that "there are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products."

The Match Group checks Match.com users against sex offender databases, but doesn't do so on Tinder, PlentyofFish or OkCupid, according to the CJI report, which was co-published with ProPublica and Buzzfeed. ( "A Match Group spokesperson contends that background checks do little more than create what she calls 'a false sense of security' among users," because government databases may be incomplete or inaccurate, the report said. Users can also, of course, use fake identities).

However, in March, Tinder announced that it would roll out an in-app background check feature at a later date this year, according to a report on BBC.com, that would allow users to view public records information of prospective dates using their name or mobile number.

Obviously, dating apps should be required by law to conduct background checks on their users. But this wouldn't come close to solving the problem, because there is evidence that the ease with which apps match perpetrators with victims appears to be encouraging more people to perpetrate sexual crimes for the first time.

The UK National Crime Agency's Serious Crime Analysis Section warned in a 2016 report that online dating sites appear to be creating "a new kind of sexual offender," who is "less likely to have criminal convictions, but instead exploit[s] the ease of access and arm-chair approach to dating websites." According to the report, while 84% of people who rape strangers have prior convictions, just 49% of those who commit sexual crimes through online dating sites have previous convictions.

Aside from dating apps, another problem, according to Nancy Jo Sales' just-published book Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno, is that the proliferation of online porn, which often depicts violence against women, has made real-life sex more violent. A 2010 study of porn videos--cited in a New York Times article about how online porn is shaping young people's views about sex--found that 88% depict aggression.

Now, some men are copying these activities when they have sex with women in real life. A 2019 study found that more than 23% of women said they had become scared during sex as a result of something done to them. Choking, for instance, has become alarmingly common.

Clearly, the culture change we need hasn't begun to happen as part of the #MeToo movement. Indeed, a lot of women and parents of young girls may not even be aware of how dramatically the Internet is facilitating sexual crimes.

As one part of the solution, it's clear that kids need to be educated about why porn is different from sex in real life (though, as Peggy Orenstein pointed out in a commentary earlier this month, when schools attempt to do this, parents freak out.)

The Cosby outcome also makes clear that victims need far more support than they're currently getting, including help documenting evidence and building strong legal cases. They also need help rebuilding their lives after they become victimized -- from mental health services to assistance finding new jobs after leaving abusive employers. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden "will continue to" fight violence against women. He should back that up by providing funding for more programs to provide this kind of support to victims.

Let's be clear: Bill Cosby can't be dismissed as an anachronism. In fact, since the period during which he was alleged to have assaulted women, the Internet appears to have only deepened the dangers of sexual assault for women. In this sense, it's bitterly fitting that an actor accused over and over again of sexual assault is still called by some "America's dad." Sexual violence has become a pervasive American problem.

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