Alice Arkwright on the significance of Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse conviction
In October 2017 the New York Times and the New Yorker published stories detailing accusations of sexual harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein. Over the next few days, weeks and months many more women came forward with their own experiences.
The MeToo movement sparked global conversations about experiences of sexual harassment and violence and about how work can so often be an environment of exploitation for women. As a society, we have also had to face difficult questions of why sexual predators are able to act in plain sight and the fact it took 25 years for Weinstein to be held accountable.
Over 100 women have now accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct against them personally, leading to his sentence of 23 years in March. Weinstein was convicted of raping an actor in 2013 and for forcibly performing oral sex on a production assistant in 2006. However, he was acquitted on three other charges, including predatory sexual assault and rape in the first degree. Very soon after, LA prosecutors also filed new sexual assault charges against him; however, this is now on hold due to the coronavirus crisis.
The trial was remarkable in numerous ways and many, including myself, thought this outcome might never happen – in part, due to incredibly low conviction rates for sexual violence, the fact that his behaviours and those of many other perpetrators had been ignored and even condoned, and the power that Weinstein held. This emphasises what a victory this was for the MeToo movement and the power that women hold when they speak out collectively.
As Tarana Burke, the founder of the MeToo movement stated, “For so long these women believed that he was untouchable and could never be held responsible, but now the criminal justice system has found him guilty. That sends a powerful message”. However, this is the start of the conversation and there are so many important learnings from the case.
One of the most notable features of the case was the fact that the women accusing Weinstein had relationships with him before the attacks and afterwards. Even though this is so common, it is very rare for prosecutors to go to court with, and get convictions for, women who maintain contact with their attacker. Complainants in sexual violence cases are often presented as dishonest, as defendants argue there is no way people who experience sexual assault would continue to work, live or socialise with someone who would hurt them. In this trial the prosecution worked hard to counter this narrative, exploring issues such as power, control and the shame and guilt that women can experience following an attack.
The hope is that this will lead to many more convictions in cases like this and prosecutors will use this line of argument. Whilst 60,000 reports of rape were made between 2018 and 2019 in England and Wales, this resulted in only 919 convictions. Violence against women organisations have expressed concerns that police and prosecutors are dropping cases where the perpetrator and complainant have an ongoing relationship for the fear that a jury will not find the case credible. This is despite the fact that this is so common in sexual harassment and assault cases. That said, the power dynamic in Weinstein’s case may be easier for a juror to recognise than in other cases given his public influence in the entertainment industry.
The jury in this case also seemed to reject victim-blaming narratives that were used by the defence. Donna Rotunno, the lawyer defending Weinstein, stated in an interview that she had never been sexually assaulted as she had never put herself ‘in that position’. The dress of one of the accusers was presented as evidence during the trial and the women were continually belittled and blamed for their experiences.
The sentence received by Weinstein also hopefully demonstrates that the perceived success of the perpetrator should in no way influence any decision made by the criminal justice system. This was attempted by his legal team who stated in relation to the length of his sentencing: “His life story, his accomplishments and struggles are simply remarkable and should not be disregarded in total because of the jury’s verdict.” Unfortunately, this has impacted on sentencing many times before.
Weinstein’s conviction was a powerful statement and managed in part to overcome these dangerous narratives and stereotypes, but it also took more than 100 women coming forward and a global movement. The lessons from this must be carried forward. His behaviour was enabled by social, political, cultural and legal systems that must change to support and believe survivors.