What The Weinstein Verdict Means For #MeToo In Australia
Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein has been found guilty.
The producer was found guilty of committing a criminal sex act against former production assistant Mimi Haley in 2006 and rape in the third degree of former actress Jessica Mann in 2013, but not guilty of two counts of predatory sexual assault.
Almost two and a half years since The New York Times published their story detailing the sexual abuse and harassment of numerous women over decades by Weinstein, and the global revival of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, finally we have a verdict and a victory, if an incomplete one.
And all decent people who value the rights of women to live and work free from sexual assault and harassment owe a great debt to the brave women who told their stories and testified in court, and to the dogged and courageous journalists who would not be bullied out of investigating the story.
Although the Weinstein case was prosecuted in New York, it has been viewed by some as a decision on the #MeToo movement in general. And, while I don’t see this one case as somehow a verdict on the experiences of women all around the world, it does have far-reaching implications.
Perhaps the most important thing this verdict shows us is that, sometimes at least, women are believed. Even when they are making allegations against very rich and powerful men.
These women took on a Hollywood giant and had their suffering and their survival acknowledged and validated. It is a seminal victory for women who have always been the underdog in these kinds of proceedings, both here and in the US. And it is a warning shot to those men who, I hope, are struggling to sleep tonight for fear of what may come out about their own behaviour towards women.
It is a reminder, too, of the importance of investigative journalism. Without the work of Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Ronan Farrow, and the support of their editors, the stories of Weinstein’s accusers may never have been brought to light and the #MeToo movement may not have gained the global momentum it did.
But, unfortunately, the verdict is not an unmitigated victory. It shows us we still have a way to go. Weinstein was acquitted of the most serious charges brought against him -- those of predatory sexual assault, which would have recognised him as a serial offender.
Why the jury believed beyond a reasonable doubt the testimony of Jessica Mann, but not that of the actress Annabella Sciorra, who testified that Weinstein had raped her in her home in the early nineties, is currently unclear. Were her claims less convincing? Was the jury less compelled by the idea that Weinstein could have been capable of a pattern of abuse? Is there a limit to what we'll believe from women? We may find out as more details of jury deliberations emerge.
Meanwhile, in Australia, many of the allegations that have come from our own #MeToo movement have been bogged down in defamation proceedings. If successful, these defences can lead the public to believe the women speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault are lying, even though that is not necessarily the case when it comes to proving that defamation has occurred.
This setup puts Australia in a holding pattern -- a strange state of cognitive dissonance. We want to believe and support women. We want to shine a light on the truth. But with our defamation laws, we also, as lecturer and former journalist Louisa Lim put it, "privilege the right to reputation over freedom of expression".
We want to acknowledge that sexual assault and harassment happens to women at staggering rates (around one in two women have been sexually harassed and one in five women have experienced sexual violence according to the ABS), but we don’t really want to acknowledge that it is largely men who are doing the harassing and assaulting.
The cases aren't completely analogous, of course, but in this country, even when a man murders his family, some still find themselves compelled to keep an "open mind". They want to be open to the possibility that lighting one’s partner and children on fire could be the result of a man “driven too far”.
Thankfully, the public backlash against this attitude is also very swift, and it becomes very clear where our values are as a society.
The conviction of Harvey Weinstein, who could spend up to 29 years is jail, may also tell us where society is and where it's headed. Perhaps we've turned a real corner. It certainly feels like it. We have a long way yet to go, but we are beginning to see a cultural shift in which powerful men are being held accountable for their abusive actions.
Hopefully, this means that our daughters will not have the experiences that we did. And if they do, they will not be afraid or ashamed to come forward -- and those who dare to hurt them will be made to answer for their crimes.