Beverly Johnson’s Silence About Cosby Shows Just How Far Rape Culture Permeates

Seventies supermodel Beverly Johnson went public yesterday with a story about being drugged by Bill Cosby, in what looks like an attempted sexual assault that follows the pattern of nearly every other alleged assault by Cosby.

In her disturbing account for Vanity Fair, Johnson says she was slipped a drug at Cosby’s home and while feeling herself going limp, began to curse at him, resulting in him kicking her out of the house. Even as he left her, half-conscious, in a taxi cab, she says, she was worried about confronting such a powerful figure.

Later, she thought about reproaching him or trying to figure out what happened, but didn’t.

I didn’t call back the next day or any other day after that. At a certain moment it became clear that I would be fighting a losing battle with a powerful man so callous he not only drugged me, but he also gave me the number to the bedroom he shared with his wife. How could I fight someone that boldly arrogant and out of touch? In the end, just like the other women, I had too much to lose to go after Bill Cosby. I had a career that would no doubt take a huge hit if I went public with my story and I certainly couldn’t afford that after my costly divorce and on going court fees.

Such was Cosby’s power and influence, and the power of rape culture at the time.

What makes Johnson’s story different from almost all of the aspiring actresses and comedians whose stories match up to hers in other details is that she was already famous and powerful in her own right when her assault happened. She had been, in her own words, a “top model” throughout the ’70s, becoming “Heavenly Beverly,” the cover model who broke racial boundaries. Yet she felt her acting career would be doomed if she went public. And she may have been right.

One of the biggest enablers of rape culture is silence. There is silent complicity from people who enable abuse and abusers — like Cosby’s handlers and the journalists who turned away from his story. There is muteness from victims who don’t have the language to say “no” in the moment, as Susan Dominus writes this week at the New York Times:

“No” and “stop” — of course, they should be said and respected. But several women who told me they felt their consent was ambiguous said that in the moment, they froze, and language eluded them altogether: They said nothing. Because those words are inherently confrontational, they can require a degree of strength that someone who is feeling pressured or confused or is just losing her nerve or changing her mind might not have.

And then there is a hush from survivors after the fact, a silence that implicates all of us.

For Johnson, even when the obstacles to her career were no longer the major issue, she worried about being seen as an attacker of black men at a time when black men are under attack from the state. Yet she ended up turning towards solidarity with other survivors anyway.

The current plight of the black male was behind my silence when Barbara Bowman came out to tell the horrific details of being drugged and raped by Cosby to theWashington Post in November. And I watched in horror as my longtime friend and fellow model Janice Dickinson was raked over the coals for telling her account of rape at Cosby’s hands. Over the years I’ve met other women who also claim to have been violated by Cosby. Many are still afraid to speak up. I couldn’t sit back and watch the other women be vilified and shamed for something I knew was true.

Eventually, Johnson chose to break her silence to offer support and sisterhood to her friends and fellow actresses who were being, in her words, vilified. But the fact that even she was so hesitant, particularly at first, should be a reminder to all of us about the layers and layers of silence that surround rape culture.

As this year’s stories, from the Lena Dunham backlash to the decades it took for the Cosby allegations to be taken seriously to the Rolling Stone story brouhaha, show us to varying degrees and in different ways, the price of speaking up remains far worse than the price of silence. In fact, sometimes silence is rewarded.

Salamishah Tillet notes in a striking piece at the Nation that the male reporters who admit they shied away from questioning Cosby about the lingering rape accusations paid no price, and indeed saw their careers advance. It’s not just victims, in other words, or witnesses. Everyone, including journalists, is incentivized towards reticence when it comes to talking about rape.