This article first appeared on Malta Today
When renowned American women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred was in her mid-20s, she went on vacation to Mexico. There she met what seemed to be a nice man, a doctor, who asked her out on a date. Telling her he needed to visit a patient first, he took her to what turned out to be an empty apartment, and to her shock and horror, he took out a gun, and raped her at gunpoint.
To this day she is unable to properly articulate her feelings about the rape. Even speaking about it to camera decades later, in a recent documentary, her face is a mixture of revulsion and stunned disbelief about how it all happened. She didn’t report it, fearing she would not be believed, and when she found out she was pregnant, Gloria went for a backroom abortion which nearly killed her.
It was these horrific experiences which eventually led her to become a ferocious advocate for women’s rights. Today, her name is immediately recognizable because of the many high profile cases she has taken on, most famously the case against Bill Cosby, who is accused of having drugged a number of young girls and sexually assaulting them. As more and more women approached her to tell their stories, dating back some 40 years, Gloria Allred became aware that the statute of limitations meant that legal action was time-barred, so she set about changing the law for similar cases in the future.
To do this, she knew that she had to use the media. She had to persuade the women to do what many thought was unthinkable: stepping in front of the cameras to describe exactly what happened. Shaking, terrified, ashamed and clearly still traumatized by what had happened, the first few came forward in public, and as they did, others found the courage to do the same. The cover of the New York Magazine, showing 35 of the women who agreed to be interviewed and photographed, sitting on rows of chairs staring directly into the camera, is an image which is difficult to dismiss.
According to the article, “All 35 were interviewed separately, and yet their stories have remarkable similarities, in everything from their descriptions of the incidents to the way they felt in the aftermath. Each story is awful in its own right. But the horror is multiplied by the sheer volume of seeing them together, reading them together, considering their shared experience. The women have found solace in their number — discovering that they hadn’t been alone, that there were others out there who believed them implicitly, with whom they didn’t need to be afraid of sharing the darkest details of their lives.”
Meanwhile Cosby will be back in court in April where he is currently facing criminal charges on sexual assault which allegedly happened in 2004, which is the only case still within the statute of limitations.
As extreme as it may be, the Cosby case should serve as a point of reference for many reasons, but primarily because it is clear that unless women speak out, report and file charges against their perpetrator, then sexual predators and rapists will just keep on doing it again and again, secure in the knowledge that they can get away with it.
This week’s case where a female police officer gathered enough courage to speak up and file rape charges against a fellow police officer, after learning that he was doing the same thing to one of her colleagues, is a classic example. Men who sexually assault women do not usually stop with just one – emboldened by the fact that their first victim has remained silent, they will keep doing it, probably becoming even more reckless precisely because no one has dared denounce them. This case was particularly significant because it involves the police themselves, where the tight camaraderie creates a culture of fear and a wall of omertà’. Those who “rat out” fellow police officers are not looked upon kindly, so the woman who spoke up about what was happening literally inside the police station itself, deserves double the praise for her bravery.
I realise that it is easy to talk when one has not been through it, and I am no way minimizing how traumatic it must be to have to relive the experience throughout the court hearings . But there is no way around this basic fact: unless a woman who has been sexually assaulted or raped takes the crucial step of filing a police report, nothing much will change. The more women speak up, the less likely it will be for it to be dismissed as her word against his, and shrugged off as a case of ‘he said, she said’. As more women corroborate each other’s stories, the stronger the case will be against a serial sexual offender in order to bring him to justice. More importantly, it could save other women from suffering the same fate.
Victim Support Malta provides a 24/7 crisis centre at Mater Dei for victims of sexual assault. For more information go to