The conviction of disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in late February will for many feel like the culmination of a years-long campaign, namely the #MeToo movement, led by feminists and survivors of sexual assault. Weinstein received a dual conviction of a criminal sexual act and third-degree rape, of which the former carries a maximum sentence of 25 years. Certainly, many women (and men) will have breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing the guilty verdict. But what does it mean for the future of #MeToo?
For numerous reasons, Weinstein’s conviction will long be seen as a watershed moment, as evidence that societal attitudes towards sexual assault and violence against women are truly changing. And rightly so. For one, both women whose allegations formed the basis of the charges against Weinstein – former production assistant Mimi Haleyi ex-actress Jessica Mann – had maintained prolonged, personal relationships with Weinstein before and after he assaulted them. Historically, this kind of relationship would be used as evidence that no non-consensual sex acts had taken place; indeed, the defence claimed that the relationships had been ‘consensual’ and even ‘transactional’. An ongoing relationship, then, makes a woman complicit, discredits her testimony and effectively strips her of her agency.
And yet, 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. With this in mind, the argument that an ongoing relationship with an alleged rapist is evidence of their innocence is rendered nonsensical. Such an assumption, though, taps into the misogyny inherent in most societies. Whether explicitly in the law court or implicitly via media coverage, relying on the argument that a relationship with her alleged attacker makes a woman culpable minimises the obligation to assess our own instinctive judgments about women who allege sexual assault.
Though of course the power of a single trial should not be overstated, the extent of the media coverage of Weinstein’s trial and conviction may go some way in drawing attention to this issue. It is essential that not only law lawmakers but also journalists and the public offer more compassion and empathy for sexual assault survivors, which includes understanding the context in which rape happens – that is, nearly always by someone known to the victim and that they will have had a prior relationship with.
The Weinstein case has also brought attention to the issue of unequal power dynamics in relationships – and the devastating effects that can ensue when such an inequality is abused. Several of Weinstein’s alleged victims, including Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino, have argued that Weinstein sought to damage their careers after rebutting sexual advances from him. Hearing the testimonies of Haleyi and Mann, along with the several other women who gave evidence at his trial, it becomes clear that Weinstein sought to use his industry prowess to manipulate young, inexperienced women into non-consensual sex acts. This kind of abuse of power undoubtedly happens elsewhere – be it through sexual harassment in the workplace or domestic violence at home.
The lessons learned from the Weinstein case must be taken forward and applied to sexual assault cases out of the public eye. Indeed, the #MeToo movement was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, a civil rights campaigner and sexual assault survivor, to empower especially young and vulnerable women to speak out about assault and harassment in the workplace. The hashtag, of course, went viral when it became attached to the Weinstein scandal, and was used by numerous high-profile women.
Change is certainly already being made in recognising the often-nuanced nature of sexual violence. In 2015, coercive control was legally recognised as a form of abuse in England in Wales, formally acknowledging that abuse is often not physical. Ireland and Scotland followed suit in 2019.
However, still only 3% of rape allegations in the UK result in a conviction. In the US, the proportion is as low as 0.5%. And that’s considering that the majority of rapes go unreported. The lessons learned through the Weinstein case and preceding #MeToo movement should be used to empower marginalised women, who have been robbed of their agency and voice, to come forward, while enabling law enforcement to secure a greater number of convictions.
In other words, Weinstein’s conviction must mark the beginning, and not the end, of the inevitably long road to securing justice for sexual assault survivors. Campaigners will seek to maintain the momentum of #MeToo; the public and media should be right behind them.