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Harvey Weinstein Is Guilty and Actually, That *Is* a Victory

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

6 mins read

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Trigger warning: this newsletter contains references to sexual assault.

For a little while—like, 24 hours?—after a New York jury found Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein guilty of first-degree criminal sexual act and third-degree rape, it seemed like every feminist I knew (not to mention many media outlets) believed the verdict was a signal that society had fundamentally shifted, that because Weinstein had been held accountable for at least some of his crimes, we were one step closer to all rapists and abusers being held accountable for their crimes.

Then the conversation changed. News stories began reminding us that the conviction rates in rape cases are dismal (according to a 2018 Washington Post article, the number hovers around 1%) and that celebrity cases rarely lead to profound social change anyway. And, as Jezebel writer Emily Alford notes, it is profoundly unfair that, “it still takes a crowd of women to convict one man. Meanwhile, we’ve come to expect bad men to sit on the Supreme Court and in the Oval Office or to narrowly lose Senate elections in Alabama. It feels as if the country is packed with them, wall-to-wall, so tightly that even a little punishment for a single assailant feels like it reduces the crowd. Weinstein faces between five and 29 years in prison for his crimes, which seems big because anything is greater than nothing.”

Those are all valid and important points. Feminist writer Jessica Valenti pointed out that nearly every woman she knew expected Weinstein to be acquitted “because women are so used to losing.” She went on to cite several infuriating recent cases: Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was found guilty of raping a young woman behind a dumpster, but who received a six-month prison sentence because the judge thought more jail time would “have a severe impact on him.” Robert H. Richards IV, the heir to the Du Pont family fortune who was convicted of raping his three-year-old daughter, but whose eight-year sentence was suspended because the judge believed he would not “fare well” in prison. Bill Cosby, who had been accused of sexual assault as early as the 80s, but who didn’t face any consequences in the court of public opinion or an actual court of law until 60 women had come forward with allegations against him.

But I don’t think that means we should discount the fact that this verdict was a win. It was hugely important for the women who very bravely told the truth about what Weinstein did to them, risking their professional and personal reputations. According to the New York Times, “the verdict may lead to change in the prosecution of complex sex-crimes cases.” Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney who brought this case against Weinstein, took a huge risk in pursuing this case because many of the women who came forward had “messy” stories, and prosecutors tend to assume that juries view those women and their testimonies as less credible. The fact that Weinstein was convicted, even if only on lesser charges, sets a precedent for these types of cases going forward.

I also think Weinstein’s trial was a sort of referendum on #MeToo. In feminist circles, “believe women” has become a rallying cry. But for many people, a criminal conviction is necessary if they’re actually going to believe that someone has been raped. I don’t think that’s fair—it’s well-established that North American legal systems discriminate against Indigenous people and Black people, and that they’re notorious for letting rapists off the hook, all of which makes it difficult to entrust them with that responsibility.

But at the same time, I do understand why people want an institution to say, “Yes, this happened.” There have been huge societal shifts since 2017; terms like rape culture are mainstream, conversations around consent are everywhere and there is significantly less tolerance for the type of behaviour that, not so long ago, we wrote off as jokes. But there is still a lingering (though yes, largely inaccurate) notion that a man’s life will be ruined if he is falsely accused of rape. This dynamic doesn’t exist for most other crimes—we don’t tend to worry about the accused burglar’s future job prospects, you know? But as long as it does, convictions help change the conversation. (And, as writer Helen Rosner pointed out, they also provide an opportunity to dunk on the bros who obsessively bring up the presumption of innocence in every comment section.)

We shouldn’t overstate the importance of this verdict, of course. Weinstein was acquitted on the more serious charges—though he still faces a trial in Los Angeles, so he may yet be held accountable for “worse” cases. And most of the men who were “#MeToo’d” (ugh) have not faced any kind of criminal charges—according to Vox, 262 celebrities, politicians and CEOs were accused of sexual misconduct between April 2017 and January 2019, but of those, Axios says only seven have actually been convicted of a crime. The #MeToo movement has also been mostly about highlighting individual cases, but activists seem to agree that its future depends on its leaders’ ability to turn these grassroots efforts toward some kind of united goal.

But it’s okay to take a moment to acknowledge that this verdict means something, even though we know there’s more work to be done.

I keep thinking about what Rosanna Arquette said on Tuesday at a press conference in L.A. held by a group of Weinstein Silence Breakers: “Now we know that if we dare to speak, there is a far greater chance that we will be heard and our abusers will be punished.”

How simple, and yet how incredibly powerful.

And Did You Hear About…

All the tweets about Maria Sharapova’s retirement… and the quote tweets about her one-sided “rivalry” with Serena Williams. I think it’s kind of funny that sports media insisted on positioning Sharapova as Williams’ rival despite losing 18 of their 20 matches—but now that she’s retired, there’s barely any mention of the actual GOAT?

The worst service dog (but goodest boy) that ever was.

This surprisingly awesome story about Kanye West’s impact on Cody, Wyoming. It made me like Ye more than I have in a while, tbh.

This Buzzfeed piece on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk, a web-based talk show that launched in 2018. Writer Michael Blackmon says the show has evolved into an outlet for Black celebrities, like T.I. and Snoop Dogg, to do damage control. But at its worst, he argues, Red Table Talk fails to hold powerful people accountable. Instead, “an appearance on the show just becomes a glorified faux therapy session in which celebrities protect each other’s egos.” (Oof.)

NYT fashion director and chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman’s review of the Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent shows at New York Fashion Week, which was really about the ways fashion might use feminist buzzwords, but fail to actually engage with feminist ideas.

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