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

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Bill Cosby, accused of misconduct by 60 women, was released from prison on Wednesday after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his sexual assault conviction. That he is a free man today sends a deeply disturbing message to women who survive sexual assault: If they do come forward, they will face almost insurmountable obstacles in their quest for 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 made with a prosecutor to avoid prosecution in exchange for a deposition in a civil case had been abused against him, and that he should not have been charged in the criminal case.

Recall that Cosby was accused of misconduct by 60 different women. “I have always maintained my innocence” he tweeted wednesday.

Of course, Cosby is an octogenarian who played a TV dad in the 1980s and early 1990s. Modern celebrities, on the other hand, live on the internet and in what we may believe to be more enlightened times. In fact, it can be tempting to think that things have changed in the last 16 years, when Cosby was charged with committing the sexual assault for which he was convicted. Since then, we have seen many women come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment, assault and violence as part of the #MeToo movement.

So some may perceive that the norms have changed and men know that they can no longer get away with this kind of behavior because women speak out.

But it’s wrong.

On the contrary, since Cosby’s time the world has become less safe for women – thanks to the very origin of the #MeToo movement. While researching a book on women and the internet, I discovered that sexual violence against women is regularly activated online in new and ever more dangerous ways.

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

They are called dating apps.

In 2019, Columbia Journalism Investigations conducted an investigation – what he warned was not scientific – out of 1,200 women in America who said they used dating apps. More than a third of women said they had been sexually assaulted by someone they met through one of these apps. This figure is staggering. If that’s almost correct, sexual violence is becoming surprisingly common.

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

The Match Group checks Match.com users against sex offender databases, but does not do so on Tinder, PlentyofFish or OkCupid, according to the CJI Report, which was co-published with ProPublica and Buzzfeed. (“A Match Group spokesperson argues that background checks do little more than create what she calls ‘a false sense of security’ among users,” as government databases can be incomplete or inaccurate, according to the report. Users can, of course, also use fake identities).

However, in March, Tinder announced that it would be rolling out a background check feature in the app at a later date this year, according to a report on BBC.com, which would allow users to view public folder information of potential dates using their name or cell phone number.

Obviously, dating apps should be required by law to check the background of their users. But that wouldn’t solve the problem, as there is evidence that the ease with which apps match perpetrators with victims seems to encourage more people to commit sex crimes for the first time.

UK National Crime Agency Serious Crime Analysis Section warned in a 2016 report that online dating appears to be creating “a new kind of sex offender,” who “is less likely to be convicted of crime, but instead exploits[s] the ease of access and the friendly approach of dating sites. According to the report, while 84% of people who rape strangers have previous convictions, only 49% of those who commit sex crimes on online dating sites have ever been convicted.

Dating apps aside, another problem, according to the recently released book by Nancy Jo Sales Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Inferno Dating Appis that the proliferation of online pornography, which often portrays violence against women, has made real sex more violent. A 2010 study on porn videos – cited in a New York Times article on how online pornography shapes young people’s views on sex – found that 88% portray aggression.

Now, some men copy these activities when they have sex with women in real life. A 2019 study found that over 23% of women said they were afraid during sex as a result of something done to them. Choking, for example, became alarmingly common.

Obviously, the culture change we need hasn’t started to happen as part of the #MeToo movement. Indeed, many women and parents of young girls may not even realize how much the Internet facilitates sex crimes.

As part of the solution, it is clear that children need to be educated on why pornography is different from sex in real life (although, as pointed out by Peggy Orenstein in a comment earlier this month, when schools try to do so, parents panic.)

Cosby’s result also makes it clear that victims need a lot more support than they are currently receiving, including help documenting evidence and building strong legal cases. They also need help rebuilding their lives after being victimized – from mental health services to help finding new jobs after leaving abusive employers. White House press secretary on Wednesday Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden “will continue to” fight violence against women. It should support that by funding more programs to provide that kind of support to victims.

Let’s be clear: Bill Cosby cannot be considered an anachronism. In fact, since the time he allegedly assaulted women, the internet appears to have only increased the dangers of sexual assault for women. In that sense, it’s only fitting that an actor repeatedly accused of sexual assault is always referred to by an “American father.” Sexual violence has become a pervasive American problem.


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