This week, Harvey Weinstein—movie mogul of the Weinstein Company whose misbehavior all but started the #MeToo movement—was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sexual crimes against women. For many, this result comes as no surprise. Many have read Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker articles, expanded in his book Catch and Kill. Many have read the New York Times reporting pieces. Weinstein has received backlash for accusations of sexual crimes for years in the court of public opinion. But in the judicial courtroom, this is Weinstein’s first legal consequence for his crimes.
I didn’t see much coverage in the news of Weinstein’s trial, which may be in part due to the burgeoning news stories on the Coronavirus and presidential candidates. It could also be because many assumed there is nothing new here—Weinstein’s behavior was that of an exploitative creep, for which he’s finally being held accountable.
But it’s worth taking a moment to consider the Weinstein trial, especially for those who care about the #MeToo movement. Because embedded in the trial proceedings are examples of two problematic outlooks that persist on the topic of sexual assault: first, the idea that immediately after sexual abuse, the injured person ought to be able to function completely clear-headedly, as if not emotionally impacted by the abuse; and, second, the idea that vulnerable parties can freely choose to be exploited. I think this latter idea, which seems exclusive to sexual crimes, is rooted in a broader distortion in our culture’s perception of transactional sex.
One of Weinstein’s accusers, former Project Runaway production assistant Miriam Haley, accused Weinstein of sexually assaulting her in his apartment. Weinstein’s defense team responded by showing she sent loving emails to him after the incident, accepted gifts and airline tickets, and even had consensual sex with him on dates after the assault. Similarly, when another accuser, Jessica Mann, shared an account of abuse, Weinstein’s defense again attempted to discredit the story since she had sent friendly emails after the event and offered for him to meet her mom.
If women were truly violated, as Weinstein’s accusers have been found to be, why would they do things like this after the abuse? Or why wouldn’t they immediately report the abuse?
We see this kind thinking in reporting about sexual assault more generally. Take this 2015 Weekly Standard cover story by Heather Mac Donald. She writes: if someone who says they experienced rape surveyed saying they “didn’t think it was serious enough to report" at the time, then it must not have been rape.
When I wrote on the topic of Bill Cosby’s allegations five years ago, before his conviction, I addressed the question of why women make rape allegations long after they’ve occurred: “It’s a complex answer. Not unlike, why don’t domestic violence victims just leave their abusers? Why don’t sex-trafficked women just leave their pimps? These are hard questions. But deep down we know there’s an answer. There’s a dark, confusing number of reasons. After all, there wouldn’t be a ‘Special Victims Unit’ on Law & Order if sexual crimes weren’t significantly more complicated.”
The truth is, sexual assault is such a violation, we cannot always predict how a victim will respond. Some will immediately avoid the person who harmed them. Others may stay connected to the assailant, hoping somehow to convince themselves it wasn’t that bad.
As relational beings, many women by nature assume the other person is in the right, and many are afraid of conflict. Many of us are conditioned to be accommodating; if a man says something inappropriate, to laugh it off—keeping the relation jovial—and move on. But for women like Haley and Mann, who were targeted by a sexual scam artist who crossed more boundaries, to go along like nothing happened can be an even deeper trauma response.
In 2016, I spoke with Dr. Jennifer J. Freyd, a psychologist and editor of the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, who told me it’s not uncommon for someone to forget a painful experience in order to “stay attached to a person who keeps you alive, for instance.” A child needs a parent to stay alive, so in cases of abuse, for children, “forgetting harms done to them serves a function.”
In the high-profile abuse case of Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics team doctor convicted of sexually assaulting children, some of his accusers were not believed for decades, even by their own parents. One such victim was Kyle Stephens, who was abused by Nassar from age 6 to 12. When she told her parents, NPR reports, “they didn't go to the police. Instead, they took her to a child psychologist, who said he didn't have enough information to report Stephens's allegations. After that, Stephens’s parents and Nassar sat her down in her living room to talk. Stephens recalls Nassar himself telling her, ‘No one should ever do that, and if they do, you should tell somebody.’”
Stephens then kept quiet about the accusations until years later when many more women came forward accusing Nassar of abuse. Examples like this help explain why victims can remain quiet for so long. For people like Kyle Stephens, her own parents didn’t believe her, and so to keep a sense of homeostasis within her home environment, she had to table the issue.
While the circumstances of the abuse may differ, certain trends remain: abusers often blame the victim, and they count on the victim blaming themselves, fearing blame from others, or deferring to the disbelief and authority of others around them, to keep quiet.
Take the recent coverage of priest sex-abuse scandals in which the Church was found to move dozens of credibly accused priests overseas. Roman Catholic priest Antonio Pinal faced accusations that he abused a young boy named Ricardo Torres from the age of 15; when the publication ProPublica contacted Pinal for comment, the disgraced priest immediately blamed the victim: “Pinal said Torres was reluctant to talk to clergy about [the abuse] because he [the victim] was at fault. ‘If he refuses to talk with any priest, I don’t think it’s because he is rejecting me but because he knows that he is not innocent of the situation he wants to blame me for completely. His only advantage over me is that when this happened, he was a minor; so, legally, I am screwed. Because of this I had to leave the diocese and the United States, as you mentioned, for a long period of time.”
ProPublica reports that after years of not being taken seriously, after finally getting psychological help decades later, “for the first time, Torres was able to really talk about what happened. And for the first time, he said, he began to believe that it wasn’t his fault.”
When it comes to adult women like Haley and Mann, all Weinstein’s defense lawyer had to do is paint them as women who had something to gain from the sexual transaction, and the blame would be placed. They were willing participants, it would be spun—never mind that he was gaining more than they were, and that they fell into a trend of him roping vulnerable women into sexual behavior.
Blurring lines of sexual crimes
Can people freely choose to be exploited? When senior citizens are scammed by phone callers pretending to be the Social Security Administration, their decision to give personal information to untrustworthy sources, if they do, is not considered a free choice. We have educational campaigns to spread awareness so people aren’t exploited. Nowhere is it painted as a free choice, as in, “Well, if you decide to give your information to a scam artist, here’s what you should keep in mind.” If people are informed of the facts, there are no options to weigh, because there’s no free choice to make. It’s altogether something to avoid, and if someone falls into the trap, the scam artist is to blame, not the victim.
When women go back to their abusers, we know they’re not gaining anything. If they think they’re gaining anything from a “transaction” of accepting abuse, it’s only their perceived gain, and the men abusing them depend on their false perception of it. Perpetrators of abuse depend on their victims having a false perception that their security is connected to allowing the abuse to keep happening. It’s no different than the false perception created by the scam artist on the phone offering to fix an error with your Social Security account. In this case the lie being sold is the idea that transactional sex can be okay and even beneficial.
But for some reason, when it comes to sexual crimes, it can be harder to see exploitation clearly for what it is. “Oh, he was rich; of course he had a lot of lovers,” we might think of a famous person like Cosby or Weinstein, at first. “She just did it to be close to his fame.” The problem with this line of thinking, though, is that it assumes that transactional sex is okay or even beneficial, which makes it harder to see sexual exploitation for what it is.
This lie is also what perpetuates the lure of women into the sex trade. The formula is all too common for formerly-trafficked women with whom I’ve spoken: a highly manipulative pimp romances a young vulnerable woman, often under 18, into a relationship. From there he says he needs money and asks her to dance at strip clubs. Once she’s roped in and will have difficulty leaving the arrangement, the more abusive reality becomes apparent.
This bait and switch also happens on porn sets. Women, like the “Duke porn star” Miriam Weeks, sign up for a porn scene, but what happens when the cameras start rolling is quite different than they expected.
I think the more liberal our sexual mores have become as a culture, the wider the trap is for women to fall into. No one wants to come off as prudish, or uncool, and Hollywood big wigs like Weinstein bet on women saying “yes” to that step into the apartment alone, “yes” to the lesbian sex scene, and so on—but now that we can see Weinstein for the scam artist he was, I think we can fairly say that the “choices” made by the women Weinstein abused weren’t as free as Weinstein’s defense tried to make them out to be.
The problem is Weinstein’s lies go beyond what he said to individual women; his lies on sex permeate the entertainment industry, in which he has been a major player for decades. Movies and shows everywhere show scripts with meaningless and transactional sex depicted positively. And in the porn industry, rape porn abounds. This has consequences for society’s general view of sex. In her book, Sex Matters, Mona Charon states “The drunken hookup culture seems to have been designed to the benefit of jerks, selfish creeps, and rapists. It has also confused and misled ordinary young men about what sex is and how women tend to feel, leading to misunderstandings that can turn tragic.”
That Weinstein will finally be held accountable for his crimes is a victory for women and society at large. It was no small task for his accusers to face him in court. I hope now that they’ve won their case, more people will grow in understanding how women like them could get into exploitative circumstances. And I hope, with each sexual abuser being held accountable, more of us will feel comfortable seeing these situations for the exploitations they are.