#TheEmptyChair Highlights Why Some Women Stay Silent About Sexual Assault

After the ‘New York’ magazine cover story about Cosby’s accusers, women are speaking up on social media about a shaming culture that keeps survivors from coming forward.

(Photo: 'New York'/Twitter)

Jul 27, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

New York magazine’s website was attacked by hackers shortly after it published a feature on Bill Cosby’s accusers Sunday night. But thanks to the women who bravely shared their stories, conversations about sexual assault and its damaging cultural stigma have skyrocketed on social media.

The magazine’s cover, which features black-and-white portraits of 35 of the 46 women who have publicly accused the comedian and Cosby Show actor of rape or sexual assault, visibly and plainly illustrates the sheer volume of women who have come forward. They have power in numbers—and yet, when many of them shared their stories individually, they were brushed aside, shamed, or branded as pariahs.

Silenced no longer, the women were photographed seated in four rows that fill the entirety of the magazine cover, but perhaps the most striking aspect of the image is what’s left to the imagination. An empty chair at the bottom of the cover represents the sexual assault survivors who have yet to come forward, because, as Janet Mock put it on Twitter, “we, as a culture, wouldn’t believe them.”

Mock and hundreds of others on Twitter are using the hashtag #TheEmptyChair to honor survivors of sexual assault and talk about the culture of shaming that encourages some women to keep silent about their abusers for fear of social backlash.

A sexual assault takes place every 107 seconds in America, but 68 percent of them go unreported to police, according to statistics by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. The anti–sexual violence organization estimates that about half of rapists are a friend or acquaintance, and 98 percent will never spend a day behind bars.

But in the 1960s, “when the first alleged assault by Cosby occurred, rape was considered to be something violent committed by a stranger,” wrote New York reporter Noreen Malone. In the decades since, she continued, younger women have given something to Cosby’s accusers: “a model for how to speak up, and a megaphone in the form of social media.” #TheEmptyChair has become a megaphone all its own.