Setting the tone for sexual assault trials
Flying underneath widespread alarm over the novel coronavirus and other issues in the press like the Trump impeachment trial, the Harvey Weinstein rape trial has been ongoing. It is certainly a little removed from local concerns, but those who have felt themselves affected by the #MeToo movement may find the trial interesting, to say the least, as the way the trial plays out may set the tone for future cases of sexual assault and rape. The ripples may take yet a while to reach the Philippines, where such stories are often confronted with disdain or disinterest, but one can remain hopeful.
Weinstein, a Hollywood producer whose influence and power on the scene cannot be overstated, stands accused of multiple felonies, including rape and predatory sexual assault. The multiple women who now claim that he assaulted them have complex, unique timelines of their own, spanning decades; some of them were kept silent by threats to their careers or promises of further opportunities, while some did go forward even with police and legal involvement — only to have their stories “caught and killed,” as described by Ronan Farrow, whose reporting on the case earned him a Pulitzer in 2018. (For those interested in these individual stories, his book, “Catch and Kill,” as well as the accompanying and ongoing podcast, is a harrowing revelation.) What they all have in common is something that most sexual assault victims can also relate to — the inevitable doubt and victim-blaming from the world at large.
As of this writing, six women have testified about assaults by Weinstein. Two of them are directly involved in the charges, while four others were brought forward to help establish Weinstein’s character as a sexual predator. For now, the trial has followed the same disappointing pattern we often see when women come forward against white, wealthy men: first, Weinstein’s defense predictably calls into question the credibility and reputations of its witnesses. These are tactics Weinstein’s people have employed in the past, such as in the case of Ambra Gutierrez, the Filipino-Italian model who had a recording of Weinstein admitting to assault as early as 2015, but whose credibility and career were then made to suffer. Secondly, the lawyers claim that Weinstein’s encounters with women were consensual, even beneficial for the women, some of whom continued to maintain cordial relations with him after — nevermind that their livelihood and safety may have been predicated on their silence and friendliness. Third, the defense has gone so far as to call in a psychologist — a supposed expert on “memory decay” — to cast doubt on the reliability of the women’s testimonies, most of them about events that happened years ago.
Fourth, and perhaps most disappointing of all, is the way that Weinstein’s defense lawyer, Donna Rotunno — herself a woman — has made comments that savor strongly of victim-blaming. Asked if she had ever been sexually assaulted, she said, “I have not because I would never put myself in that position… All I’m saying is women should take precautions.” The same old tired, oversimplified and unsympathetic rhetoric is unsurprising — wherever sexual assault is discussed, comments on careless victims must follow, as though absolving rapists of any guilt. What’s disappointing is her brazenness to utter these words in front of a press and a global audience which must, to some extent, know better by now, now that we know more about the factors which affect rape victims’ decisions to come forward. What’s disappointing is that this woman calls herself the “ultimate feminist” as she lashes out against what she calls the “celebrity victimhood” supposedly enjoyed by women accusers.
These things are disappointing, but ultimately not surprising. We already know that both men and women stand on both sides of this divide. The trial continues, and one can only hope that for every voice that advocates victim-blaming and ignores the vulnerability of accusers, there might be one that recognizes the culpability of the accused and those who built a network of complicity around him.
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