When a grainy video of standup comedian Hannibal Buress making a joke about Bill Cosby’s rape allegations on an October night in 2014 went viral, the rallying cry of #MeToo was years away.
The men the movement would lay low were still at the height of their powers. That same evening, Bill O’Reilly was on his top-rated Fox News show, railing against political correctness, while the next morning, Charlie Rose told CBS This Morning’s audience about an Ebola outbreak.
But the Buress clip was the first rumble of an avalanche bearing down on Cosby, prompting dozens of women to come forward with their own stories of abuse by the entertainer, eventually leading to his arrest and subsequent conviction.
When the comedian, once known as “America’s Dad,” is sentenced to what could be up to 10 years in prison this week for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in 2004, it will be perhaps the starkest evidence yet that the #MeToo movement has permanently altered the way the country reckons with sexual misconduct by powerful men.
“I’m hoping that’s a permanent change – that there isn’t the idea that you get to a point of success that you can do whatever you want,” said Aviva Orenstein, a law professor at Indiana University who has studied sexual assault cases. “Jokes about casting couches – I mean, that was tolerated for years. Sexual favors are expected, and genius is recognized as an exception to decency.”
Cosby, once the beloved star of the 1980s television comedy “The Cosby Show,” eventually faced accusations from some 60 women stretching back decades, some of which had long been known but previously failed to gain traction.
His arrest in late 2015 predated the #MeToo movement, which gained steam following multiple allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, by nearly two years. But Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University and an expert on sexual assault cases, said Cosby’s case, as well as the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016, helped “seed the ground” for the coming wave.
“I do think you can draw a line between the Cosby case and where we are now,” she said.
The movement itself may have helped convict Cosby, after his first trial in mid-2017 for sexually assaulting a former friend, Andrea Constand, ended with a hung jury. By the time he faced his retrial, the #MeToo campaign had exploded.
Defense lawyers grilled prospective jurors before the trial on whether they could set aside their feelings about #MeToo. The judge who oversaw both trials, Steven O’Neill, allowed prosecutors to call five additional accusers to tell their stories at the second proceeding, bolstering Constand’s account.
“[The movement] may have influenced the judge’s willingness to allow more witnesses,” Orenstein said.
In closing arguments, prosecutors specifically called out Cosby’s lawyers for targeting the women’s credibility, saying those attacks discourage victims from speaking up.
Experts said the #MeToo movement’s work is far from over. In Cosby’s case, he was only convicted after a jury heard from several women, rather than only one, underscoring the challenges sole accusers can face. That dynamic is on display in the controversy surrounding US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Tuerkheimer said, with Kavanaugh and his allies denying allegations from a woman that he sexually assaulted her in high school.
But Cosby’s conviction has given hope to many survivors, particularly those whose abuse occurred too long ago to pursue criminal charges, according to Rebecca O’Connor, vice president of public policy at RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). The nonprofit’s hotline has received a record number of calls in the last year, with many survivors citing the Cosby case and others as inspiration.
“I think for a lot of survivors, they can see themselves in this story,” she said. “People are watching carefully.”