New York magazine’s cover said it all — 35 women photographed in the same chair. Thirty-five women who claim comedian Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them and wanted to share their stories with the world.
But it was the 36th seat — an empty one in the corner — that was perhaps the most powerful. It seemed to represent the 11 others who did not talk about their Cosby allegations. It also seemed to represent men and women worldwide who had their own sexual abuse stories — many who said they belong in “the empty chair.”
After New York magazine’s story went live Sunday, social media lit up with the hashtag #TheEmptyChair, which is being used to share personal accounts and support for others who have survived similar situations. Journalist Elon James White was one of the first to use it, posting statements from women who told him they wanted to share their stories but couldn’t speak for themselves. Within 24 hours, it had been used nearly 13,000 times.
“It’s not so much that the conversation is new here, but the Cosby cover gave people a moment to speak about it,” White, who publishes a multimedia platform This Week In Blackness, told The Washington Post. “Hundreds of thousands of women feeling that they belong in that empty chair.”
Late Sunday night, White, 36, posted a note on Twitter from someone who he said had sent him a message. “‘I can’t share my empty chair story because I signed a NDA (a non-disclosure agreement),'” he quoted the anonymous message. “‘Needed the money more than justice, and he knew it.'”
The anonymous tweets continued to pour from White’s Twitter account.
People who used the hashtag also showed support for victims of abuse.
“The women on the
@NYMag cover and those who sit in #TheEmptyChair, I’m sorry this happened to you, but I thank you for telling your stories,” one woman tweeted.
And the hashtag prompted a larger discussion about sexual assault.
“#TheEmptyChair signals the women who couldn’t come forward mostly because we, as a culture, wouldn’t believe them,” MSNBC’s “SoPOPular” host Janet Mock wrote.
Cosby himself has been accused of sexual assault by more than 40 women in cases that date back to the 1960s. He has not been charged with a crime.
“There are now 46 women who have come forward publicly to accuse Cosby of rape or sexual assault,” New York magazine’s Noreen Malone wrote in Sunday’s cover story. “The group, at present, ranges in age from early 20s to 80 and includes supermodels Beverly Johnson and Janice Dickinson alongside waitresses and Playboy bunnies and journalists and a host of women who formerly worked in show business. Many of the women say they know of others still out there who’ve chosen to remain silent.”
The article included interviews with 35 of them.
“Each story is awful in its own right,” Malone wrote. “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.”
White said he hopes the story — and hashtag — will kickstart a conversation.
“It’s not just a women’s issue,” he said. “It’s an America issue.”
More about the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby: