There’s no doubting Camille Cosby’s loyalty to her husband, Bill, who has now been charged with three cases of sexual assault. She’s been consistent in defending him across decades of allegations and against dozens of women, all of whom have described identical assaults: drugged, raped, disbelieved, disgraced. “None of us will ever want to be in the position of attacking a victim,” said Camille in a statement to CBS in 2014. “But the question should be asked: who is the victim?”
In Camille’s mind, it seems the victim is her husband, and not the women he has allegedly attacked. Over the years, she’s characterised his behaviour as “cheating”, rather than rape, and implied that his accusers are simply dishonest. Now, she’s seeking to avoiding testifying in a lawsuit against her husband brought by seven women who Bill called “liars” for claiming he assaulted them.
This is despite the fact that Bill has admitted under oath in 2005 that he obtained tranquillisers to give to women he wanted to have sex with, and even joked about drugging women as part of his set in the “Spanish fly routine” from 1969 (five years after he and Camille married). “Go to a party, see five girls standing alone,” he says, before adopting a horny growl to deliver the pay-off: “Boy, if I had a whole jug of Spanish fly, I’d light that corner up over there.”
If your life and reputation are inextricably tied to a man, you’ve got very few places to jump to. Like a frog in a pot, you end up squatting stoically as the water bubbles and boils around you
The audience on the recording laughs and applauds. It’s a grim moment, and grimmer still when you know the words of his accusers, such as Heidi Thomas, who recalls him pouring her a glass of wine, drinking it and then nothing after that “except waking up in his bedroom. He was naked, and he was forcing himself into my mouth".
At what point do you stop standing by your man? For most of us, Camille Cosby’s behaviour is inexplicable – even if she truly believes her own construction of events, this is a man who has been persistently unfaithful to her over the years. From someone like Camille, who’s always projected extraordinary competence and preached a severe gospel of self-respect, this is baffling. Could you stay with a man who’d committed multiple infidelities? Who’d admitted to drugging women for sex? Who’d turned drugging women for sex into a comedy performance for the public?
And yet it shouldn’t be so hard to understand, and the explanation is all in that word “public”. Like Hillary Clinton in 1998, who attacked Monica Lewinsky and forgave her husband his Oval Office philandering, despite it being prima facie sexual harassment of a junior staffer, Camille’s first role is as the wife of a famous man, and she’s had to address everything in public. The shame of being associated with such actions is one thing – how much harder to add to that the embarrassment of admitting you’ve got it wrong? If your life and reputation are inextricably tied to a man, you’ve got very few places to jump to. Like a frog in a pot, you end up squatting stoically as the water bubbles and boils around you.
Remember too that the man who assaults women outside his marriage might not be so great inside it either. Stockholm syndrome doesn’t look very different from blind loyalty, but it’s real and every single day women defend the men who hurt them because they can’t imagine a life without their abuser. Blaming Camille Cosby is easy but, of all her husband’s defenders, she’s the one who merits the most understanding if you care about women.
Understanding doesn’t mean agreement, though – whatever Camille says about Bill’s alleged victims, they’re the ones we need to listen to.