The conviction of one of Hollywood’s most powerful men at his sexual assault trial Monday could change the way sex crimes are viewed far beyond that New York City courtroom.
Harvey Weinstein was found guilty on two of three charges: a criminal sex act for assaulting production assistant Mimi Haleyi at his apartment in 2006 and third-degree rape of a woman in 2013. The jury found him not guilty on the most serious charge, predatory sexual assault, that could have resulted in a life sentence.
To a law professor at the University of B.C., Weinstein’s conviction could mean the tides are changing on sexual assault.
“It is a reminder that even the most powerful people, even the the men who seem most untouchable, aren’t above the law, and that it is possible to use the criminal justice system as one means of trying to hold men accountable for sexual violence against women,” Janine Benedet told Black Press Media shortly after the verdict came down Monday.
“So in that sense, I mean, it does send a positive sort of message.”
Weinstein’s conviction marked a major win for the #MeToo movement, which started with accusations against the disgraced Hollywood mogul made by women who spoke to Ronan Farrow. The piece, published in the New Yorker in the fall of 2017, was followed by one in the New York Times, and scores of accusations made around the industry. Weinstein was arrested in May 2018, seven months after the exposés.
Weinstein faces another sex crimes trial in Los Angeles following charges announced earlier this year.
During the trial in New York, Weinstein’s lawyers had tried to convince the jury – made up of seven men and five women – that his accusers had used the producer for fame.
During closing arguments, Weinstein lawyer Donna Rotunno said the case against Weinstein amounted to “regret renamed as rape,” arguing that the women exercised their free will to try to further their careers.
Benedet said that is one of the hurdles victims face when reporting sexual assault. The arguments made by Weinstein’s lawyer, Benedet said, along with acquittal on the most serious charge could hint at the way the power balance in sexual assault cases is viewed.
The way that Weinstein abused his power was just as coercive as using physical force, she noted, even if the jury may not have seen it that way.
“Having control over someone’s future and career prospects… that kind of leverage, when combined with other forms of power like wealth and age and sex is actually very potent and very coercive,” Benedet said.
“The focus of sexual offences is the fact that the victim doesn’t want this to be happening – not the technique the abuser is using.”
|Harvey Weinstein arrives at a Manhattan courthouse during jury deliberations in his rape trial, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)|
Victims can also buy into the narrative that it’s not assault unless physical force is used, Benedet said, and that can lead them to stay in touch with their abuser.
Some women can stay in touch, and even remain intimate with their abuser, due to fear. In Weinstein’s case, it’s fear of power, she said, but in others, it can be fear of making a fuss or breaking up a family.
“If it’s a spouse you might not be ready to break up your marriage,” Benedet said. “Most often, it’s by family members – the fact that you continue to have a relationship with your grandfather or your uncle or your father is hardly surprising.”
Benedet said women who do report are often made to feel guilty for wanting their abuser in court.
“The idea is that women are supposed to be forgiving, we’re supposed to accept men’s apologies and when we don’t… there is a stereotype that paints us as vindictive,” she said.
And that’s just the start in the troubles that follow when women come forward. For many, both the police and the court processes are long and harrowing.
Women are often expected to be the “perfect victim,” Benedet said.
“But no one can ever meet that standard. There’s always something you’ve been drinking or taking drugs, you went back to his house again, you don’t have perfect chronological recall [of the assault] and on and on it goes.”
Those criteria for being a suitable victim all feed into the stereotype of how sexual assault happens: “Real sexual assault is committed against a woman who’s just living an ordinary, respectable life and is attacked by a stranger who uses violence.”
The myth persists, Benedet said, because of fear.
“We can make ourselves believe that if we don’t go out at night, if we carry our keys between our fingers, or whatever it is we’re supposed to do, we can eliminate the risk of being sexually assaulted,” she said.
But according to Statistics Canada data, 52 per cent of victims know their attacker – and that’s after removing spousal abuse from the equation.
“We’re all vulnerable. And that’s a very hard pill to swallow.”
– with files from The Associated Press