What Cliff Huxtable Teaches Us About Sexual Violence

Laying the stranger danger idea of sexual violence to rest.

Posted Apr 27, 2018

Cliff Huxtable did not commit a sexual offense; Bill Cosby did. Convicted yesterday of three counts of aggravated sexual assault, Cosby has in total some 60 allegations of sexual misconduct and assault. Many of these allegations involved him having drugged the drink of a woman he had recently met, whether that meeting happened on a Hollywood set, at the Playboy Mansion, in an airplane, or in a hotel.  For those of us who watched "The Cosby Show" in the 1980s, the real life Bill Cosby and the fictional Cliff Huxtable will always be intertwined. This is what makes it difficult to digest. How could Bill Cosby, the man we think of as the kind-hearted family man Dr. Huxtable, do such a thing? And while it wasn’t Cliff Huxtable who did this, it serves as a reminder that our image of a sex offender is often at odds with what the data show. We tend to think of offenders as strangers, someone with a face we would know to distrust if we saw them in a park near children or at a bar trying to pick up women. But the reality is that they are often men more like Cliff Huxtable. Over 90% of sex offenses are committed by someone known to the victim, whether a family member or an acquaintance. In fact, family members make up over a third of all cases of sexual abuse.

So even though it was Bill Cosby – the man we now see cursing in the courtroom amidst his steady stream of accusers – and not Cliff Huxtable who committed those crimes, the data hold true.  Bill Cosby didn’t ambush anyone in a park or prey on strangers. He assaulted women that he knew, women that he had established a relationship with and who trusted him. Nearly half (45%) of all rapes are committed by an acquaintance, while another quarter of them are committed by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend. The first step toward improving our response to sexual violence is in changing misconceptions of what sexual assault looks like. We can begin to have more effective response to sexual violence when we shift our narrative about the perpetrators of sexual assault. Whether we are talking about the sexual assault of a child or an adult, perpetrators are almost always someone already known to the victim. 

The second thing this case reminds us is of importance of creating a culture in which we take victims seriously.  Many of the women alleging assault in this case report that they were reluctant to come forward because they didn’t think anyone would believe them. After all, whether the perpetrator was Bill Cosby – a man of great status, money, and power – or the Cliff Huxtable image of Cosby, a family man who earned our trust, the victims here feared they would not be believed.  And this fear was apparently well founded as for many years juries and law enforcement also struggled to view Bill Cosby as someone who could commit sexual assault. The result of our culture of disbelief is that the abuse and assaults continued over decades, allowing Cosby to victimize many more women than he otherwise could have. Broadening our image of offenders to include every day people, celebrities, and even “nice guys” will ultimately help us to prevent further victimization.


For more information, see:

Jeglic, E.J., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting you child from sexual abuse: What you need to know to keep your kids safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.  https://www.amazon.com/Protecting-Your-Child-Sexual-Abuse/dp/1510728686