Has the high-profile Bill Cosby drug and rape story ushered in a new era, making it easier to change the way we talk about famous men and rape? Or is it just an exception to the rule, one with dozens of accusers and a sworn deposition making it an outlier?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the former was the case after this past weekend, and being heartened. On the heels of the latest disturbing Cosby revelations, almost immediately, we read a striking account from Jackie Fox of ’70s teen rock group the Runaways, followed by a revelation about a possible date-rape incident between two Golden Age Hollywood stars, Clark Gable and Loretta Young. Suddenly, as Runaways biographer Evelyn McDonnell acknowledged in her post responding to Fox’s story about Kim Fowley, it feels as though the narrative around famous men who may have operated as predators with impunity has been seriously shaken up. McDonnell specifically mentions the image of rock ‘n’ roll and groupies, which has been complicated by Jackie’s story:
This is one of the important reveals of Jackie’s story: While numerous books and movies have celebrated groupies as free-spirited nymphs, Fox makes it clear that not all women in similar situations were enjoying themselves. And of course, she was a musician, not a courtesan. Stoned on Quaaludes she says she was fed, she was largely unconscious…. No one knew how Jackie felt about it. They didn’t ask. She didn’t tell them.
Fox herself responded in an incredibly generous way to her bandmates and others, saying she hopes her story doesn’t enlighten people solely about rape, but also about what happens when people witness something horrifying in the context of rape culture — they are often paralyzed, or silenced:
But they’ve also said that my story has given them hope that the dialogue about rape is changing. Some have reevaluated their own trauma in light of learning about the Bystander Effect. One person wrote that I had given her a gift: “the ability to see that the people in the room were victims too.” Their behavior didn’t mean I deserved [the abuse]. It just meant they were afraid and didn’t know what to do.
Meanwhile, Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeed dug into an old Hollywood scandal involving a studio-system starlet named Loretta Young and the baby she bore, Judy, who was long rumored to be Clark Gable’s daughter. Petersen talked to Young’s other children, who told her that apparently the national discussion of “date rape” gave Young the vocabulary to talk about something she’d never been able to express before, breaking a silence of many decades. That, she told them, was what happened to her:
In some ways, Young’s situation was impossibly unique. Yet it also recalls the millions of unwanted sexual encounters that entire generations of women did not talk about, in part because they couldn’t: They literally did not have the language to do so. The word “rape” was too extreme — something that happened to women in back alleys. The introduction of “date rape” into the vernacular gave a name for an experience that, to that point, had defied description, and thus reportage.
These stories make two things clear. The first thing is that, as with the Cosby story, the public and media are growing to really understand what rape is. It’s nonconsensual sex. It’s sex with a minor. It’s sex with someone who is incapacitated. It’s about power, not desire. And it’s possible that anyone can do it, no matter what the context. The very public discussion has challenged these myths, at least. The second is that media discussions of rape and rape culture help victims understand and come forward themselves, creating a positive domino effect of speaking out. So, are we now going to see more powerful men taken to task, thanks to these three stories? Are we entering a more enlightened age?
Some experts aren’t so sure. “I think things have absolutely improved in terms of more people recognizing the difference between rape and consensual sex,” says Kate Harding, author of the forthcoming book Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do about I t . “But is it easier to question the actions of famous men now?” She points out specifically that these three cases are different from accusations against celebrities who are currently at the top of their fields. “Fowley and Gable are dead. Cosby’s very old and has been accused by so many people, there’s no good way for him to spin it. And yet, he still has defenders who think it’s some sort of conspiracy.”
In fact, Harding points out that although some showbiz people may finally be getting held accountable by social media and the press — as in the Jian Ghomeshi case, for instance — there are some realms where old-fashioned rules are too prevalent. “Women who report being raped by pro athletes, for instance, are still immediately painted as gold diggers, liars, and sluts. That’s our default response, just as much as it ever was,” Harding says. The backlash against the campus anti-rape movement provides another example of how progress on the issue hasn’t exactly been linear. In other words, the needle has shifted, but only in a very localized way.
Yet even if the stories that are surfacing mostly involve older or dead men, the power of survivors speaking up, and their stories being heard for the first time, is immeasurable. It means that young people reading the newspaper or Facebook may learn earlier than they might otherwise have that “casting couch” behavior isn’t just sketchy, it’s wrong — and that silence isn’t the only option.