The new scarlet letter

Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison this week for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004, who was 30 years old at the time.

The professional athlete, who came out as a lesbian to refute Cosby’s allegations that he knew how to read women’s desires, describes the assault: “I was paralyzed and completely helpless. I could not move my arms or legs. I couldn’t speak or even remain conscious. I was completely vulnerable, and powerless to protect myself.”

To a much lesser extent, this is what sexual assault feels like without drugs — the inability to save oneself, the physical helplessness, the fear.

Rape victims are up to four times more likely to experience PTSD than veterans of war. Constand wrote in The New York Times how she transformed from someone “at the top of my game” into an anxiety-ridden, fearful woman dogged by nightmares who avoided socializing in the aftermath of the assault.

She finally reported the attack after becoming “consumed” with guilt over the idea that Cosby was raping other women “because I didn’t speak out.” And so, the massage therapist went up against one of the most powerful men in entertainment with an estimated net worth of $80 million. When she did, the onslaught against her began: her credibility, her motives, her past, her choices. The attacks and scrutiny such women undergo handily explain why so many sexual assaults go unreported.

The three accusers who have come forward against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, none of whom knows each other, are still not enough for the Republican men of the Senate Judiciary Committee — reflecting the same story for women everywhere who have challenged men, both powerful and not, over the course of history.

It is the Scarlet Letter for the modern age: “A” for “Accuser.” Men evaluate the credibility of a female accuser; even many accusers — in the case of Cosby, more than 60 and spanning decades. And still, for too many, it is not enough.

The fictional character of Hester Prynne accepted her punishment as a “fallen woman” in the The Scarlet Letter, set in the puritanical 1640s in what would become Massachusetts. Prynne fights to keep her daughter, conceived out of wedlock, as the male notables of the town decide whether she is morally fit to raise her:

“I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!” answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.

“Woman, it is thy badge of shame!” replied the stern magistrate. “It is because of the stain which that letter indicates, that we would transfer thy child to other hands.”

In 2018, we wish we could say men no longer sit in such judgment of women. But they do, and it is happening right now in front of us.