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What the Harvey Weinstein trial won’t change for survivors

The Harvey Weinstein conviction was momentous. But trials can only do so much.

Activists marching in Hollywood hold a banner that reads, “#MeToo survivors’ march.”
Activists including Me Too founder Tarana Burke (center) protest during a march in Hollywood, California, on November 12, 2017.
AFP via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Harvey Weinstein is going to prison.

A man accused of sexually assaulting or harassing at least 100 women, whose accounts helped catapult the Me Too movement into its current, most public phase, will face criminal consequences for his actions. This much we know.

What remains murky is how much, if at all, his trial will change the realities facing people around the country who have been or are being sexually assaulted.

To many legal experts, Weinstein’s trial was momentous because the testimony of two women, Jessica Mann and Miriam Haley, could help break down myths about how sexual assault survivors behave. The women maintained contact with Weinstein after he attacked them, and defense attorneys tried to use that to cast doubt on their stories. The fact that Weinstein was convicted anyway — and that prosecutors chose to bring Mann’s and Haley’s stories in the first place — could help pave the way for others to come forward even if their stories don’t match stereotypes about what sexual assault, or the “perfect victim,” looks like.

But while the trial offered some signs of change, survivors continue to face obstacles to reporting sexual assault. Especially for people of color, LGBTQ people, and immigrants, reporting a crime to police can mean risking assault by officers, or even being arrested themselves. And the realities of mass incarceration in America can make survivors reluctant to participate in the criminal justice system, especially if the perpetrator is a person of color.

“Knowing that the criminal system is inherently unjust, a lot of victims struggle with the thought of feeding another person of color, a black person, into a racist system,” Wagatwe Wanjuki, a writer and anti-rape activist, told Vox.

The Weinstein verdict has real importance for the many women who came forward about their experiences with him, and for those who may feel more able to come forward in future thanks to the consequences he will face. But if the conversations around Weinstein are to have a broader impact on all people who experience sexual violence, they’ll have to go beyond boldface names and headline-making stories, beyond trials and convictions.

The trial “did help to launch a public discourse and debate about who deserves justice in these cases,” Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-director and co-founder of the anti-workplace-violence group Healing to Action, told Vox. But it’s important that “the story of Harvey Weinstein doesn’t become the only touchstone for this larger cultural conversation.”

“I understand people who say this is a win for all survivors,” Wanjuki said, but, “I think it’s up to us to turn it into that.”

Weinstein’s conviction was meaningful for many — but there’s a lot it won’t change

Weinstein’s trial and the verdict this week were undoubtedly meaningful for many of the women who report being harmed by him. “My testimony was painful but necessary,” Annabella Sciorra, who testified that Weinstein raped her in the 1990s, said in a statement to media on Monday. “We can never regret breaking the silence. For in speaking truth to power, we pave the way for a more just culture, free of the scourge of violence against women.”

Rowena Chiu, who did not testify but says that Weinstein assaulted her, told the Today show that hearing the verdict was “deeply emotional.”

“Of course I felt elation and that some justice had been done, but also profound sadness for all of the victims he assaulted over that time period,” she said.

And legal experts say the trial could help break new ground for sexual assault cases more broadly. In the past, prosecutors have had a tendency “to bring cases that are easy to prove, against the sorts of defendants who jurors are likely to convict, which only exacerbates issues of racial injustice in the criminal justice system and issues of income inequality,” Michelle Madden Dempsey, a former prosecutor and law professor at Villanova University, told Vox in an interview before Weinstein was convicted.

But the fact that prosecutors brought the case against Weinstein at all, knowing that the defense would try to pick apart the witnesses’ relationships to the defendant, could encourage more such cases in the future.

Still, despite the potential for more people accused of sexual assault to be brought to trial, it’s also true that “the state exercises its power in the criminal justice system in all sorts of nonproductive ways,” Dempsey noted.

Before a case can even go to trial, a survivor has to report a crime to the police, and that isn’t a safe option for everyone. Though research suggests that Me Too has led to an increase in the reporting of sex crimes — one study found that the movement increased reporting by about 7 percent in the US — the criminal justice system still has a long way to go when it comes to taking reports seriously and treating with respect the people who come forward.

All too often, people fear coming forward in the first place because they may be disbelieved, or harmed yet again by police officers — “sexual misconduct at the hands of law enforcement is very real, especially for marginalized communities,” Venkayla Haynes, an anti-violence organizer and advocate, told Vox in December. Eighty percent of rapes are reported by white women, though women of color are more likely to be assaulted, according to the group End Rape on Campus.

“I don’t connect with it personally when I see Weinstein going to jail,” said Wanjuki, who is a survivor of sexual assault, noting that “it’s extremely hard to even get an arrest, even more hard when you’re a black woman reporting.” The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network estimates that of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 230 are reported to police, 46 reports lead to an arrest, and nine cases are referred to prosecutors.

And even if a survivor does report and the case goes to trial, the process of testifying can be enormously traumatic, as the Weinstein trial clearly showed. Those who testify have to speak publicly about something they might rather forget, then submit to cross-examination designed to undermine their account at every turn. Advocates say reforms like allowing those who testify to have a support person with them could make the process less painful — but the women who testified against Weinstein still had to take the stand alone.

Some survivors don’t want what the criminal justice system has to offer, which (in the still-unlikely event that the accused person is actually convicted) is a penalty like incarceration. “So many survivors I’ve spoken to, they just want their assailant to admit it,” Wanjuki said. But “the court system is very much about not rehabilitation, but rather punishment.”

“What if you don’t want to report your assailant?” Wanjuki asks. “Those survivors deserve to feel affirmed and included too.”

The conviction could be an opportunity to advocate for broader reforms

The Weinstein trial could still be an opening to talk about systemic changes that would benefit all survivors, Wanjuki and others say — if we make it one.

For starters, reforms need to look beyond the court system. For Wanjuki, being sexually assaulted in college “was an economic crime,” she said. “It harmed my career in a way that will never be recovered.”

Her experience isn’t unique. According to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, being sexually assaulted in adolescence is associated with an estimated lifetime income loss of $241,600, as Sheetal Dhir wrote at Al Jazeera last year.

One way to address the problem would be to simply give survivors money, Wanjuki pointed out. “There’s stigma against giving survivors money,” because defense attorneys and others sometimes try to paint them as money-grubbing, she said. But “survivors deserve money for what happened to them.”

Survivors may need sources of financial help that don’t come through the legal system. Wanjuki had opportunities to sue in her case, she said, but had no desire for extended contact with lawyers. Moreover, a legal settlement with a perpetrator can come with strings attached, like nondisclosure agreements that prevent people from talking about their experiences. Moreover, legal settlements can be inadequate — in one settlement deal in the Weinstein case, a number of women who came forward will each get less than $500,000, a relatively small amount when some say their entire careers were destroyed by the producer.

Beyond direct financial help to survivors, Wanjuki also advocates for more investment in abuser intervention programs and transformative justice, which focuses on addressing harm outside the criminal justice system, as Kim Tran writes at Teen Vogue.

Others have advocated for the expanded use of restorative justice, which focuses on repairing the harm done rather than on assigning punishment. Officials on some college campuses, for example, ask students reporting assault or harassment what actions by the alleged perpetrator could help repair the harm, such as an apology or consent education, and then work with the alleged perpetrator to complete them.

The Weinstein case and the rise of the Me Too movement have also inspired an interest in preventing harassment and assault in the first place — the anti-harassment group Time’s Up, for example, works not just to get restitution for survivors but also “to really chip away at the inequities that allow sexual harassment to persist,” Amanda Harrington, vice president of communications for the group, told Vox. That includes work on pay equity and women’s representation in Hollywood and elsewhere.

In the past, “you’d have a set and there’s maybe one actress on the set, and she’s the only woman,” Harrington said, a situation that can leave women especially vulnerable to abuse. “So we’ve been doing a lot of work to make sure that there’s diversity not just at the director level but throughout the production process,” she said.

But the entertainment industry is just one of many where sexual harassment and assault remain major problems — and workers in low-wage industries, like farming and domestic work, are especially vulnerable. Some states have responded to Me Too by strengthening sexual harassment protections for domestic workers and independent contractors, but more remains to be done.

Meanwhile, a living wage — including eliminating the tipped minimum wage — would give workers more ability to leave abusive situations, Alemzadeh of Healing to Action said. Lack of adequate pay “creates the circumstances and conditions where people are so vulnerable that they really don’t have any options, because they have no money in their savings account,” she explained. The group also advocates for comprehensive sex education so that young people learn to identify sexual harassment or assault before they ever enter a workplace.

Overall, Weinstein’s trial is likely to be remembered as a milestone in the history of sexual assault and the law. But his conviction is only one piece of a much larger story. “I think it can be a springboard,” Wanjuki said, “but the work is up to us.”

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