Accusations of sexual abuse against wealthy and powerful men are nothing new. Just recently, British royal Prince Andrew was accused of having sex with an underage girl, former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is in the news again facing “pimping” charges in France, and new Bill Cosby rape accusations continue to bubble to the surface.
All three men have denied any impropriety, and only Dominique Strauss-Kahn is currently facing criminal charges.
Holding powerful men to account is rife with challenges. Proving sexual assault beyond a reasonable doubt is often legally difficult, especially when an alleged sexual predator is an influential public figure. The scales of justice are tipped in favor of the powerful before a case even reaches a courtroom. The public almost always sides with celebrity, and social media often unleashes an Internet-fueled public backlash, debilitating victims once they do come forward.
But this public shaming of victims has also spurred an unexpected counter-effect: It’s inspiring other victims to come forward online, in the media, even in the courtroom —and it’s altering the balance of power between victims and abusers.
Typically, victims can do very little to protect their public image, as the men they accuse of abuse often have endless amounts of money at their disposal to hire top public relations teams, high-priced attorneys, and image consultants who can simultaneously airbrush their public persona, while smearing the reputation of the women who dare to speak out against them.
Motivations of accusers, rather than the accused, are questioned, and allegations of “money grabs” are made. For instance, when star Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of raping a fellow student, the public questioned her credibility and sprang to defend the Heisman Trophy winner. Winston was never arrested and has not been charged with any crime related to the accusations.
In the media, the line of thinking is the same. On CNN, host Nancy Grace said in recent a segment on Bill Cosby rape accusations saying: “[E]very time another woman comes forward, everybody says…What’s in it for her?” Indeed, one of the guests on her show, a defense lawyer, suggested the women might have been “seeking publicity.”
The Internet has made things even harder for victims.
When an English soccer player was accused of rape, a fellow teammate took to the Web to defend the player, calling the woman making the accusation “a money grabbing little tramp.” Within hours of a guilty verdict in the case, the victim’s name was trending on Twitter.
When Vine celebrity Curtis Lepore was accused of raping fellow Internet star, and ex-girlfriend, Jessi Smiles, the response online was severe. Despite Lepore pleading guilty to a lesser charge, a Twitter search of the terms “Jessi Smiles” and “slut” reveals the overwhelming support for the accused celebrity, not the victim of the crime.
Despite all of this, the role of the Internet in sexual abuse cases is changing.
As the Cosby saga has played out, we’ve begun to see the online world play a positive, equalizing role enabling victims to come forward and speak up in support of others. It was, in fact, social media that brought the decades-old sexual assault claims against Cosby back into the public consciousness, an act that eventually inspired solidarity among victims, and ultimately the general public. More than 30 alleged victims came forward with their stories, bringing vindication to women like Barbara Bowman, whose early allegations against Cosby were met with intimidation, doubt, and disbelief.
Despite the challenges victims of sexual assault face when confronting men of power and wealth, the benefits of speaking up are clear. In my experience as a lawyer, the best way to prevent future instances of sexual assault is to expose sexual predators — no matter who they are. It empowers others who were too afraid to speak out. The moment other victims come forward, the credibility of all prior allegations is boosted. When numerous women come out, all at the same time, online or in a courtroom, and testify to abuse, even the most rich and powerful men have a hard time winning back public support and the balance of power begins to shift.
Jeff Herman is a nationally recognized attorney for victims of sexual abuse. He is the founding and managing partner of Herman Law, a nationwide law firm with offices in New York and Florida.