Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Prosecutors In Bill Cosby's Case Focused On Addressing Misconceptions About Rape


The guilty verdict in the retrial of Bill Cosby has many people wondering what changed this time around. Well, we're going to talk about one big difference. In the first trial, the prosecution waited until almost the end of their case to put forward an expert on sexual assault, a person who could explain how victims of assault typically respond - what they do, what they don't do. In the second trial, the prosecution called as its very first witness forensic psychiatrist Barbara Ziv. I spoke with Dr. Ziv about her testimony, which went on for 3 1/2 hours.

BARBARA ZIV: I think it's really important to educate jurors about what real victims of sexual abuse do in the aftermath of a sexual assault because it gives them a context in which they can understand the testimony that they are subsequently going to hear. Without that lens, they're hearing it through their own biases, whether they're conscious of it or not. And this is grounded in research. There's 30 years of research about the ways that sexual assault victims act.

CHANG: All right, so what are common misperceptions people have about how rape victims should behave?

ZIV: Well, first of all, most victims of sexual assault are assaulted by somebody they know - 85 percent. The person who is the assailant is known and very often trusted by the person who is the victim of the sexual assault. So because that is a really difficult thing to live with, it's not uncommon for victims to have subsequent contact with the offender because they want to make sense of it. They want to find some plausible explanation that will allow them to keep their faith in themselves and maybe their faith in the person, to find some way to make sense of something that really doesn't make sense.

CHANG: And in the case of Andrea Constand, she still had interactions with Bill Cosby after he drugged and sexually assaulted her.

ZIV: That happens almost in every case of non-stranger sexual assault. It is the norm rather than the exception.

CHANG: What other misconceptions about how victims should behave could have been counted against Andrea Constand and the other accusers who testified in the Cosby trial?

ZIV: People expect victims of sexual assault to behave the way that somebody who's been stabbed behaves, you know, that they are immediately sickened and horrified. And in fact the most common response of victims of sexual assault is to turn inward and to blame themselves. They find themselves in a situation saying, what did I do wrong? I shouldn't have gone there. I shouldn't have had anything to drink. I shouldn't have worn something. They find ways to take control of the situation because if they could have done something different, then they can prevent it from ever happening again.

CHANG: Yeah.

ZIV: So that's the most common misconception - is that people immediately respond with horror and shock and loathing toward the perpetrator. The first response usually is self-blame.

CHANG: As you watched the rest of the trial unfold, were you noticing times that defense lawyers were still trying to build their case around these misconceptions about rape victims, misconceptions you had tried to set straight on the stand already?

ZIV: It was remarkable to me. They were attacking these women. There is no such thing as a perfect human being. There's no such thing as a person who remembers everything in detail, especially a long time after the event. And even close in time to a sexual assault, memories are clouded by the assault, by the trauma of the assault. They may be clouded by drugs or alcohol. And over and over and over again, the defense attorneys attacked women for being human beings.

CHANG: For having inconsistencies, subtle inconsistencies in their retelling.

ZIV: Subtle inconsistencies in their retelling or attacking them for being sexual human beings. I mean, I think in the closing, Kathleen Bliss, the defense attorney, said about one of the victims, is there anybody she hasn't slept with? I mean, that's exactly the reason that people don't come forward.

CHANG: Do you see the Cosby trial as an important moment where it'll just be harder for defense lawyers to prey on or exploit misconceptions about rape victims in order to win?

ZIV: I think that they will continue to do that until knowledge about the way that victims of sexual assault behave becomes more commonly known. It's not just enough to have #MeToo. You also have to say, me, too, and here's why I behaved the way that I did. And here's what we should expect from women who have been sexually assaulted. I wish that it was going to mark the beginning of a sea change in that women aren't going to be attacked for being victims. And I hope that it is. But I do think that there needs to be a very broad and deep conversation about this issue.

CHANG: Dr. Barbara Ziv is a forensic psychiatrist and a professor at Temple University medical school. Thank you very much for being with us.

ZIV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.