New York Magazine's powerful story, featuring profiles of 35 of the 47 women accusing Bill Cosby of rape, is making headlines around the world this Monday. Their testimonies are stark and horrifying, and so is the article's accompanying photo illustration: 35 women seated, staring defiantly at the camera, and a single empty chair. That chair is a symbol of all those too terrified, ashamed, or distressed to come forward to discuss sexual assault, and it's become a rallying cry on Twitter, where victims and survivors are speaking out under the hashtag #TheEmptyChair.
With so many passionate testimonies, picking just 15 tweets from the hashtag is a difficult task. It's well worth exploring, as people talk about their own sexual assaults, media and pop culture perceptions, social attitudes, and more. That said, this also comes with a strong trigger warning for sexual assault, as many of these tweets are raw, frank, and honest.
The number of women standing up to accuse Cosby has been snowballing, illustrating that once one victim speaks, it can become easier for others to come forward. Social media has proved particularly fertile ground for discussing each new break in the story, but more than that, it's created an opportunity for fellowship. Instead of sitting in silence, victims and survivors have an accessible medium with which to communicate with one another. And since sexual assault can be a very isolating experience, this is invaluable. The unexpected resonance of #TheEmptyChair stands out from other discussions, though, highlighting how a single image can sometimes be powerfully compelling.
Cosby stands accused of raping nearly 50 women since the early days of his career, with charges dating back to the 1960s. The case has highlighted the role of sexual assault in Hollywood at large, and it's revealed Cosby's dual personas: a kind, accessible, moralizing man on the outside, and an alleged sexual assailant behind closed doors. By his own admission, Cosby procured drugs to help him have sex with women, and his victims spanned the spectrum from fellow actors to waitresses. He also allegedly attempted to silence his accusers by offering them payoffs, in an attempt to preserve his pristine image.
Today, we saw many women and men refuse to be silent.
Many victims of rape and sexual assault are taught not just that they shouldn't report, but that what they experienced wasn't rape at all. The notorious "gray rape" is often used to create a nebulous field about what does and doesn't qualify as rape, even as multiple colleges are developing affirmative consent policies for their students to address the issue.
This author was one of many in the YA community speaking out about sexual assault and her own experiences. Such testimonies are particularly valuable for teens who may be struggling with their sexuality — and for those who are afraid to come forward about their own rapes, fearing reprisals, mockery, or a refusal to believe them.
In a culture in which the needs of men are considered more important than those of women, everyone suffers. The constant social obligation to "be nice" plays not just into sexual assault, but the treatment of women politicians, women in the workplace, and more. Tellingly, the women accusing Cosby are being described as "bitches" for speaking out.
Some are still afraid to speak up in public. Elon James White declared that his DMs were open for anyone who wanted to speak to him, and began publishing comments anonymously with permission, standing in solidarity with those who felt too disempowered to use their voices in public.
He wasn't the only one standing in solidarity with those who sit in the empty chair. With one in six women and one in 33 men experiencing sexual assaults over the course of their lifetimes, the probability is high that one or more of your friends is sitting in the empty chair, possibly in silence.
The Cosby case highlights a complicated double bind for many women of color raped by men of color, who may want to report their rapes but fear harming the men of color around them. Men of color are at a profound disadvantage in the justice system, which already incarcerates them at a disproportionate rate. The thought of sentencing yet another man of color to prison can be too troubling for some victims to speak out.
Victims of sexual assault are not selected by coincidence, or because they're so attractive that rapists simply can't control themselves. Rape is about power, not sex, and the exertion of power over victims who cannot exercise consent is a telling testimony to that fact.
Transgender people are often left out of the dialogue about rape and sexual assault, despite the fact that 64 percent of transgender people have experienced sexual assault. Discussions about sexual assault must include the trans community to provide a comprehensive look at how to fight the issue — and, notably, trans women of color are among the most likely to be sexually assaulted.
Even after years of fighting social attitudes about whether victims and survivors "deserved it" on the basis of what they were wearing, whether they were intoxicated, if they were dating their assailants, and more, the integrity of people reporting rape is still in question. To be believed, one must be a "perfect victim."
It took four decades for Bill Cosby's history to come to light and be taken seriously, despite vocal women talking about the issue — and the reason was comedian Hannibal Buress. Victim Barbara Bowman wrote for the Washington Post about her frustration with the fact that the allegations were only taken seriously once a man spoke up in solidarity with victims.
Disabled people, particularly those in institutions and those who need assistance with tasks of daily living, are extremely vulnerable to sexual violence. Yet they're often pointedly absent from conversations about sexual assault.
Social attitudes about black women's bodies and sexuality play a profound role in whether they're believed when reporting and talking about rape. Their accusations are more likely to be written off by law enforcement and society when they are brave enough to come forward.
While "innocent until proven guilty" is a cornerstone of American civil rights, in the case of rape, it's taken to an extreme. Even with brave testimony and clear evidence, rapists are considered innocent long past the point of believability. And when their guilt is grudgingly admitted, their behavior is often excused, rather than challenged.
Men are a silent minority in discussions of sexual assault, even more unwilling than women to come forward about their experiences, due to social attitudes surrounding masculinity and the shame that comes with sexual assault. Male experiences of rape are written off as "impossible," for example, suggesting that men "always want it" or that it's physically impossible to rape a man, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps the most poignant of all. With 32 percent of victims reporting their rapes, the number of empty chairs needed in this cover photo should be more like 109.
I sit in #TheEmptyChair too, like far too many of us do. To read testimonies from fellow survivors, from those standing in solidarity with us, and from those working with us to put an end to rape, is to be reminded that we are not alone. We are not alone, and what happened to you was not your fault.
If you need to talk to someone about sexual assault, contact RAINN at 1 (800) 656-HOPE.
Image: New York Magazine