It’s hard to keep track of the sexual abuse allegations swirling around Bill Cosby, with fresh ones popping up seemingly every day and an unusual mix of decades-old accusations and brand new claims all getting a very public hearing in the news media.
All in all, 16 women have publicly accused Cosby of sexual abuse, 12 of whom have accused him of drugging them to facilitate the abuse. Some of those women may be among 13 anonymous “Jane Doe” accusers who agreed to testify against Cosby in a 2005 lawsuit that was settled out of court. Taken together, the accusations span the length of Cosby’s long career in the public eye as a beloved actor and comedian, from the mid-1960s to the mid-2000’s. They were given new light last month by a comedian’s standup routine that caught fire on social media, and new accusers coming forward has led to a drip-drip effect of even more coming forward.
Cosby and his legal team have at various times issued wide-ranging, categorical denials or refused to discuss individual cases, with Cosby saying last week that “a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos.”
MORE: A timeline of the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations
So how is anybody supposed to make heads or tails of all this? Here’s a reader’s guide to understanding the story.
Why are we hearing about all this now?
Much of the current outrage can be traced to a standup bit in October by comedian Hannibal Buress, in which he mocked Cosby’s “respectability” schtick by saying, “well, yea, you’re a rapist.” The clip quickly went viral, and led one of Cosby’s longterm accusers, artist Barbara Bowman, to give an interview to the Daily Mail about her alleged abuse.
An apparent public relations effort by Cosby’s team to come out in front of the brewing scandal backfired badly when a request for “Cosby memes” became an avalanche of rape jokes on social media. Shortly after that, Bowman published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post entitled, “Bill Cosby Raped Me. Why Did It Take 30 Years for People to Believe My Story?”
“Only after a man, Hannibal Buress, called Bill Cosby a rapist in a comedy act last month did the public outcry begin in earnest,” Bowman wrote. “While I am grateful for the new attention to Cosby’s crimes, I must ask my own questions: Why wasn’t I believed? Why didn’t I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it? Why was I, a victim of sexual assault, further wronged by victim blaming when I came forward? The women victimized by Bill Cosby have been talking about his crimes for more than a decade. Why didn’t our stories go viral?”
From there, the story spun out of Cosby’s control.
What has Cosby said about all this?
Cosby and his legal team have either issued blanket denials or refused to discuss the issue at all.
“The new, never-before-heard claims from women who have come forward in the past two weeks with unsubstantiated, fantastical stories about things they say occurred 30, 40, or even 50 years ago have escalated far past the point of absurdity,” Cosby lawyer Martin Singer said in a statement last week. “These brand new claims about alleged decades-old events are becoming increasingly ridiculous, and it is completely illogical that so many people would have said nothing, done nothing, and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought they had been assaulted over a span of so many years.
Cosby, for his part, told a Florida newspaper that “a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos.” And he wouldn’t even discuss the matter in a later-released excerpt of an interview with the Associated Press.
So if so many of the accusations are old, what’s this really about?
In many ways the story has evolved beyond what Cosby did or didn’t do, morphing into an all-out debate about why some accusers are only now coming forward, why others weren’t taken seriously before, how Cosby might have been able to keep doing this for so long, and what it might mean for his legacy.
Are the accusers’ stories consistent?
Yes. The alleged victims tend to be young, starstruck women, many report being drugged, and almost all say they didn’t come forward for fear that they would not be believed.
Where can I go if I want to learn more?
Here’s an excellent timeline of everything we know (and don’t know) so far about the allegations against Cosby. You can also check out Slate‘s complete list of all his accusers, and this in-depth Washington Post investigation that includes video testimony from some of the alleged victims. The New York Daily News reports on a former NBC employee who now says he delivered money to women for Cosby and stood outside his dressing room while Cosby was with them. (One of the women said Monday that the money was just “generosity.) And a 2006 story in Philadelphia magazine was one of the earliest and most in-depth looks at the history of allegations against Cosby.
So what happens next?
Many hard questions are being asked about Cosby’s legacy in entertainment and his place in African-American history. John McWhorter wrote for TIME that the rise of black public figures like Herman Cain and Barack Obama has allowed American society to “judge black icons like everybody else,” without fear that criticism will descend into racial stereotyping.
TIME TV critic James Poniewozik questions whether audiences can separate Cosby from his iconic Cliff Huxtable character. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic that one of his only regrets in his writing career is failing to address the rape allegations against Cosby when he wrote a big piece about him for a national magazine, calling his attitude “reckless.” And Lindy West, writing for GQ, says, simply, that “Bill Cosby is done. It’s over. … Cosby needs to throw in the towel and go live out the rest of his life in cushy ignominy.”
— Additional reporting by David Stout
Read next: So What Do We Do About The Cosby Show?
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