Cosby's Release Reveals the Importance of MeToo—and the Danger of its Overreach | Opinion

As news of Bill Cosby's release broke, I experienced a familiar kind of rage—the kind of rage that blinds one to reason and facts and The Law. The rage is simultaneously primal and righteous; as a sexual assault survivor whose experience mirrored almost exactly what Bill Cosby's victims experienced, the rage flows from an empathy with his victims and victims everywhere.

I cannot imagine what they are going through right now. I've found myself randomly breaking down into tears multiple times throughout the day. The peace sign he flashed the helicopter circling as he returned home felt like a slap in the face. He may as well have given us all the finger.

COSBY TO SPEAK: Bill Cosby is expected to address the media after Pennsylvania's Supreme Court overturned his sexual assault conviction and he was released from prison.

MORE: https://t.co/372SV6vRlI pic.twitter.com/SuhTnI3MDg

— FOX 29 (@FOX29philly) June 30, 2021

And the rage came from a moral sense that a grave injustice has occurred. This is a proven rapist, walking free on a technicality, a loophole. It's not as if he were exonerated. English jurist William Blackstone famously wrote, "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." But what of the guilty man who deserves to be free not because he's innocent, but because his prosecution was in violation of the the Bill of Rights?

And herein lies my conflict: Although it's very hard to get one's mind around the idea that Bill Cosby's release represents "justice" in some senses of the word, technically, it is.

I'm not here to litigate the legal minutia that allowed Bill Cosby, a known rapist, to walk free. I'll leave that to legal analysts and pundits and journalists to explain and debate whether Cosby's release is an example of corruption, prosecutorial misconduct or due process. But the circumstance of his release is vitally important to the larger conversation we've been having as a culture since the dawn of the #MeToo movement.

Bill Cosby
NORRISTOWN, PA - SEPTEMBER 25: Actor/stand-up comedian Bill Cosby arrives for sentencing for his sexual assault trial at the Montgomery County Courthouse on September 25, 2018 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Getty/Gilbert Carrasquillo

In the immediate aftermath of Cosby's release, there was a chorus of women (and men) saying some version of, "This is why women don't come forward." And I can't say I disagree.

In 2014, I wrote a piece about my own sexual assault where I expressed my fear that the man would walk free as exactly the reason I didn't report him. He was a powerful banker. I was an 18-year-old waitress. I knew who the system tilted in favor of—and it wasn't me. The thought of having to endure the endless questions about that night as well as attacks on my character and credibility was too much. I doubted I was strong enough to fight the fight; but I knew I wasn't strong enough to fight the fight and lose.

So, like millions of other people, I buried the shame and the pain deep and kept my mouth shut until about a year later, when I ended up in rehab with a heroin addiction.

Repressed trauma and pain is like a radioactive waste site that's leaking. Eventually, it poisons the water and people start getting sick. And the #MeToo movement was the symptom of that sickness.

In the early days of that hashtag, reading story after story after story of rape, assault and molestations that had never been discussed, I realized how sick our culture truly is and how important that moment was. Cosby became one of the many faces of that movement and his trial and his 2018 sentencing felt like perhaps we were making progress.

In some ways, Cosby going to prison felt like justice for me, too; maybe my rapist was still free, but times were changing and perhaps it was safe to allow this wound to fully heal.

Oh how wrong I was. As the movement picked up speed and started morphing, I quickly recognized a dangerous force had been unleashed: Baselessly accusing someone of sexual assault could easily become weaponized, socially and politically. And weaponized it was.

Using the court of public opinion to subvert due process became an endless news cycle that triggered sexual assault survivors over and over and over again. Sure, some of the men deserved to go down, but there was something unsettling about the vigilante justice taking place.

There was a "Shitty Men in Media" list and the infamous babe.net hit piece that took out Aziz Ansari and many others who would lose their careers and their reputations, forever tarnished by an algorithm that never forgets and a mob that is never satiated.

The overreach accelerated and peaked when then President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Women dressed like handmaids openly wept and screamed, "Believe all women!"

Really? All women?

People rightly wondered if #MeToo had gone too far. Others thought it hadn't gone far enough, citing men like James Franco and Louis C.K. as examples of how powerful men could be accused of misconduct and continue to work in Hollywood (because apparently, it's not enough that they repent and lose their jobs; this unforgiving worldview demands that they never work again).

Lost in between the predictable battle lines that were drawn was that idea that it is perfectly compatible to give victims the benefit of the doubt and respect due process. Accusers shouldn't be subjected to the debasing and demoralizing process they are often put through that implies they were asking for it—questioned about what they were wearing or how much they had to drink. And the accused should be innocent until proven guilty, whether we like it or not.

That's how the system should work: Accusers should be treated with respect, the accused with due process. And built into a system that's working is also the fact that the guilty can walk free on a technicality that was baked into this case long ago, preordained by the actions of imperfect men.

Still, in some ways, Bill Cosby's release is the worst case scenario. I fear this will hurt both due process and sexual assault survivors. It will be used to undermine due process (I already see people blaming the Constitution for his release) and it sends a message to victims of sexual assault not to bother coming forward because it won't matter anyways.

How easy it would be to lean into my rage and scream on behalf of his victims, on behalf of victims everywhere, that this is fundamentally unfair.

It would also be easy to lean into reason, rationalizing away my anger with facts and logic and loopholes.

But the truth is, I'm ambivalent about Bill Cosby's release, and squaring this ambivalence raises uncomfortable questions: How often does this prosecutorial misconduct occur and we don't hear about it because it's not Bill Cosby? How do you explain to Cosby's victims that this man deserves to be free? What is justice?

I felt an overwhelming sense of nihilism when I heard the news on Wednesday, like an old scar was ripped open, that the system is rigged to benefit the rich and the powerful and it's all pointless. While Cosby's sentencing felt like win, this feels like a loss.

But based on my understanding of why he was released, Bill Cosby should be a free man. And that kills me. In a way, the excesses of the #MeToo movement made a situation like this one with Cosby inevitable.

It would be easy to lean into despair and hopelessness and ask "What's it all for?" But the brave women who came forward did not do so in vain. Their courage mattered to women like me and many women and men who will come after us. No matter what happens with Cosby, because of them, we know the truth.

Often as survivors we are told we're supposed to feel a certain way. But I'm conflicted. I'm simultaneously enraged that a rapist has walked free and relieved to see that due process isn't completely dead (at least, if you're rich). I cope with the messiness by writing. I only hope people struggling with their own complex feelings about justice and Cosby have healthy ways of coping, too.

Bridget Phetasy is a writer, comedian, host of the Walk-Ins Welcome podcast and The Weekly Dumpster Fire show on YouTube.

The views in this article are the writer's own.