How celebrity culture stands in the way of justice


It has happened again. Sexual assault crashed head on into celebrity culture. We have seen it before — Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger and now Bill Cosby.

Although a mistrial would indicate that nothing has been resolved for either the accused or the prosecution — much less the victim — the Cosby team has proclaimed victory and offered the quite offensive suggestion that Cosby will now work to educate young men about how to avoid being charged with sexual assault. Here’s an idea — to avoid being charged with sexual assault, don’t sexually assault someone. Simple.

Here is what we know about how sexual assault affects a victim. An assault is a traumatic event that has an effect on the victim’s ability to process information, so the recounting of the assault may be fragmented and non-linear. It is not unusual — in fact it is quite common — for a victim of sexual assault to wait weeks, months or sometimes even years before disclosing they have been a victim.

As the psyche works to protect the victim and recover from an assault, a victim may act normally, may go about their work, attend classes, interact with others — sometimes even the assailant — in an attempt to rebuild a world and identity that has been shattered. These are typical behaviors for victims of trauma, but the cruel reality is that often these behaviors are twisted by perpetrators and their defense teams and used to attack the credibility of victims. And juries — who are comprised of people who often don’t understand the dynamics of sexual violence, who don’t know the effect of trauma, who believe the myths about sexual assault — too often make decisions based on their own misconceptions.

Here is what we know about celebrities. Nothing. We see sports stars, TV and film actors and other celebrities in sound bites of minutes and seconds. If they are actors, we see them play a role — selling shoes or Jell-O. But it is not real. We don’t know them, we don’t see them interact with family or friends or strangers beyond what they want us to see, beyond what is scripted. We see what they can do, which is perform for us. But we don’t know who they are as people, how they make decisions, whether they are moral or kind or honest. Yet we make decisions about their behavior based not on who they are, but on who we perceive them to be.

Here is what we know about the criminal justice system. While it probably is the best and fairest system available, it is fallible. Because at the end of the day, it is about us. We and our neighbors and friends are the ones who sit on juries, who are charged with determining guilt or innocence. For better and sometimes for worse, we bring all our biases, our values, our misconceptions and our knowledge to the table of justice as well as to the court of public opinion. Consequently, we, the community, the “peers” of the jury of his/her peers, have a responsibility to know as much as we can about the realities of assault and its effect on victims of crime. We have a responsibility to learn what is real about sexual assault — or any assault — and to set aside the misplaced loyalties to celebrities we think we know.

For justice to be real, for victims to be made whole, we have to stand against a culture of celebrity that perverts justice and deceives us. For justice to be real, we must take responsibility for our part in it, from prevention to consequences. It’s on us.

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