A new BBC documentary gets caught in a sex-positive muddle
A four-part series, We Need to Talk about Cosby, was released on Sunday on BBC Two after premiering in the US last year. The series was made by the black American comedian, author and TV presenter W. Kamau Bell, and it is intended — he says — as an attempt to come to terms with Bill Cosby’s legacy as both a beloved household name and a serial sexual predator.
The series is, in general, rather good. Cosby’s story provides an interesting lens through which to view post-1960s American history, and race relations in particular. As is typical of most of the political commentary on Cosby’s crimes, the talking heads place a lot of emphasis on the contrast between Cosby’s image as a wholesome family man and the reality of what he got up to in private — that is, drugging and raping dozens of young women over a 60-year period.
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Given that the political tone of the series is very obviously progressive, some interviewees relish the opportunity to bash Cosby for his conservative politics. (A line from comedian Norm Macdonald springs to mind: “People say that the worst part of the Cosby thing was the hypocrisy. I disagree. I think it was the raping.”)
But because of the progressive politics of both Bell and his interviewees, the account of sexual violence the series presents is baffling in its internal contradictions. One clip, which has been widely shared on Twitter, features clinical social worker and sex therapist Sonalee Rashatwar presenting a particularly alarming analysis of Cosby’s crimes:
There are a few problems here. The first being that Cosby likely could have found poor women desperate enough to allow themselves to be drugged and raped, given the widespread availability of prostitution, even in jurisdictions where it is criminalised. Cosby didn’t do so, which suggests that he didn’t want to. An “idyllically sex-positive world” of this kind would not have sated him.
But then Rashatwar’s politics put her in a tricky spot. She is trying to hold to the idea that there is nothing wrong per se with a fetish for sex with unconscious people, because sex-positive feminism is not comfortable with describing any kind of sexual desire as per se bad. But she is also trying to maintain the notion that consent is all-important. So she comes up with the idea of Cosby utilising a hypothetically ‘consenting’ woman to achieve sexual fulfilment.
Another interviewee makes a similar error, though in a less extreme fashion: “if it’s not a yes from the woman, then it’s a no.” See, consent is simple! Acquire it, and you’re good to go.
Except that consent isn’t really that simple at all. One of the most striking lessons from We Need to Talk about Cosby is how trivially easy it was for Cosby to get away with sexually assaulting women for decades by playing on the agreeableness of his victims. A huge number of the victims describe feeling embarrassed in the aftermath of their assaults, because they felt that they had somehow been silly or gauche in front of a famous man. Many of them took the drugs he offered them without question, and they all kept quiet for many years afterwards out of a combination of awkwardness and niceness: they didn’t want to make trouble.
In perhaps the most upsetting interview of the series, Victoria Valentino — a former Playboy Bunny — describes being raped by Cosby after he’d taken advantage of her grief-stricken emotional state following the death of her six-year-old son. After the attack, she speaks of Cosby leaving the room and telling her to use his telephone to call a cab. “And the horrible thing is,” she says, “I said ‘thank you.’” She is not the only Cosby victim to describe being achingly polite in the most awful of circumstances — it is a very common response to sexual assault of all kinds.
This is a point that Sonaelee Rashatwar and other sex-positive feminists don’t seem to get when they put their faith in the idol of ‘consent’: it is incredibly easy to get women to acquiesce to unwanted sex, and not only through the economic coercion of prostitution. What Cosby did was unambiguously illegal. But there are many more instances of sexual misbehaviour that are to be found somewhere in the large grey zone between ‘legal’ and ‘virtuous’. And, about this, sex-positive feminism has nothing to say.