Cosby, the 50 Threshold, and the Empty Chair

[Content Note: Sexual assault; rape culture.]

Last week, two more women "held a press conference in New York City to detail new allegations against" Bill Cosby, bringing the total number of women accusing Cosby of rape or attempted rape to 51.

Each new woman making allegations is said to be filling the empty chair, as depicted on the cover of New York Magazine to represent his victims who have not publicly identified themselves.

I have repeatedly seen this grim threshold marked with sentiments that are some variation on the idea that the sheer number of survivors who are speaking out is proof of Cosby's guilt. "You can't disbelieve 50 women."

Sure. But one is enough.

I invite the people who find proof in numbers to recall that empty chair, upon which so many of them also remarked as a powerful symbol.

Because the thing is, even when there is only one woman reporting a rape, there should be an empty chair.

We know that sexual predators have high rates of recidivism and that serial sexual assault is more common than we'd like to believe. Predators prey and rapists are liars and no one is more intimately familiar with the rape culture, and how to exploit it to his advantage, than a serial rapist.

Rape is not, in fact, as it is so commonly misrepresented, simply a "mistake" made by a "good guy" who "didn't understand" what he was doing.

There is almost always, especially without accountability, an empty chair.

Sometimes that chair could be filled by an existing survivor who has not spoken out, for any one of a number of legitimate reasons. Sometimes that chair will be filled by a future victim, after a predator is left to continue to prey, for reasons of institutional indifference.

Yes, 50 women are difficult to disbelieve. But one should be just as difficult to disbelieve, especially when we understand the enormous disincentives that any woman faces in reporting and how many rapes go unreported for just that reason.

If that chair seems compelling to you sitting beside 50 women, it should seem just as compelling sitting beside one.

Maybe even more so, when we consider what it means to be the first to report, or the only one who ever will.

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