Two years after his initial arrest, infamous media mogul, Harvey Weinstein’s fate was decided upon yesterday by a Jury who deemed him guilty on two accounts including third-degree rape and first-degree criminal sexual act. Although the former film producer was acquitted on more serious charges including predatory sexual assault, not to mention his general skirting of the law for over a decade (accusations of sexual misdemeanour date back to 1994), this win will go down in history as a landslide moment; one that has the potential to change how victims’ stories are heard, perceived and judged within the courtroom.
The contribution of Weinstein’s trial in setting precedence for future cases stems from the prosecutor’s willingness to work with women who were both victims of Harvey’s sexual aggression while simultaneously consenting to sexual relations and staying in contact with him. Previously, lawyers avoided such cases with a ten foot pole, as it made the defence’s victim-blaming strategy rock-solid. This trial, however, should stand steady in reminding us to stop pigeonholing the behaviour of a victim—as post-traumatic psychological wellbeing will never be uniform for the abused.
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It’s about time we redefined our understanding of a ‘rape victim’, and the expectations that come along with that. More often than not, victims of abuse are forced to be in the same environment as their abuser, due to the complexities of sharing a workspace, a friendship group or a family setting. The customary mindset of “why would they remain in contact with their abuser???” (a central premise of the Weinstein defence) is one that needs to be dropped, deleted and replaced immediately. Many people don’t have the option of escaping their lives and are left with no alternative but to return to the toxic environment in which such abuse took place.
It is evident that some industries are more toxic than others. When a young woman enters the world of film, she’s often already been trained to prepare herself for behaviour that is forward, inappropriate and blurry (as viciously warned by Donna Rotunno). The super stardom of men like Weinstein that follows makes the reality of lodging complaints and filing cases even harder, especially when one recognises the network of high-profile men and women who continue to protect such people.
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If women at the very top, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, have been abused by Weinstein and felt afraid or unable to speak up on this matter, where does that leave the junior producer or personal assistant? Paltrow’s silence and choice to continue working with Weinstein has been used as an excuse to vindicate him, but violence perpetrated against a victim is not mitigated by their ‘choice’ to remain in contact with their abuser. (I say ‘choice’, although considering the power imbalances at play, perhaps obligation is more appropriate?) Salma Hayek detailed the years of torment she endured from Weinstein, including massage requests, late night phone calls, ordering her to shower with him, to let him watch her shower. On realising that his efforts were wasted, he punished Hayek by giving a role she researched and worked on for years to another actress. Incidents like this bear testament to the difficulty faced by victims in snapping contact with their abuser.
Women have over the years internalised the narrative that dictates they should be riddled with shame and guilt for putting themselves in situations that result in their abuse (ranging from “why did you go to his hotel room?” to “why were you dressed inappropriately?”). This contrition combined with remorse fuels women to take responsibility in ensuring there is no discomfort or awkwardness in their environment—because we’ve been conditioned to place the needs of men—abusive or otherwise—first. God forbid, we create an uneasy environment in which the abuser, his colleagues and family have to openly confront his heinous behaviours.
These old categories of behaviour that many have come to expect from victims—immediately extraditing themselves from such situations, incarnating their guilt, being riddled by shame, unable to move on with their lives etc—are outdated attitudes that need to be urgently reworked. The psychological aftermath of sexual violence is neither rational nor uniform and manifests itself in different forms for different people. Expecting them to adhere to ‘correct’ patterns of conduct is not only misunderstanding the victims but also absolving them off their agency. Developing a sensitivity to the realities of a victim is essential, both within and outside of a courtroom, and I hope this trial sets the precedence we need moving forward.