New York trial finds Harvey Weinstein guilty of a criminal sex act of the first degree and rape of a third degree. However, he was acquitted on the three gravest offences. The jury of 12 people (five women and seven men), found Weinstein guilty of forcing oral sex on the former Project Runway production assistant Miriam Haley in 2006, and rape of third degree in New York hotel in 2013 of another victim.
Although Weinstein was found not guilty of the most severe charge of predatory sexual assault, highlighting the existing issues in the American criminal justice system, the importance of this decision cannot be understated. And while the range of the sentence could be anywhere from 5 to 25 years this will be determined on March 11th. Until then, the rapist will await in custody.
The ‘Me Too’ phrase was first introduced in the context of sexual harassment and violence by survivor and activist Tarana Burke. However, the movement reached the mainstream after widespread accusations against Harvey Weinstein began to surface in October 2017. This inspired numerous women and men to come forward against the offenders, leading to a perceived high-profile condemnation of societal attitudes towards rape. At least in the mainstream, it began to be understood that victims are not to blame. Rape is rarely a stranger in the park: it is much more often someone who is known, a friend or a co-worker, who seeks to exploit circumstances for their sexual gratification. Though the #MeToo movement was popularized by Hollywood, through the accusation of famous people, it was made relevant by the multitude of women who found the strength to share their story, and even by those who maybe, while not sharing their story, made their support heard through a simple, yet powerful hashtag.
The UK, much like the US, suffers from a jarring justice gap when it comes to rape: out of 60,000 to 95,000 rape victims, only 1,000 offenders are convicted per year. Underreporting is an important contributor to this disparity, signaling how little trust the victims have in the criminal justice system. The case of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood finally being held to account will hopefully inspire more women to come forward, forcing the law to deal with outdated rape myths that still affect it. As reported by the Guardian, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, an attorney representing victims of sexual assault, states the importance of such verdicts: “no matter how powerful a person is, no matter how much mud or dirt may be flung at those who have the courage to come forward, we are in a new time. The #MeToo era has thankfully started to unmask these systems of abuse of power, and now women can be heard and believed.”
In addition to impacts on the reporting of the crime, hopefully this high-profile conviction will serve to validate the stories of the many who have been dismissed. Far too many entitled commenters have dismissed allegations of sexual assault using the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ rhetoric. It goes without saying that, while this is an important feature of any criminal justice system, it is not an excuse to devalue and dehumanize the experience of victims who come forward to share their stories. Another relevant impact this trial might have is that on the ‘disposable’ nature of creators in Hollywood: the powerful have exploited the positions of vulnerable people who found themselves willing to power-through for the sake of their career. However, this narrative is often misunderstood. Because of the incredibly uneven power dynamic, these victims cannot be said to be consenting to sex in exchange for other perks. They are submitted to horrific treatment for the sake of not being blacklisted as difficult or hard to work with. An example of how this dynamic works is presented in the brilliant Bombshell (2019), which examines the psychology of victims who were exploited by CEO Fox News Roger Ailes, who was accused by 20 women, including Fox News anchors Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly.
This is an encouraging first step in the pursuit of accountability for powerful, high-profile men, which will hopefully lead to increased convictions and reports of sexual assault.