Harvey Weinstein and the Silence Around Sexual Assault

Over the last month, the film industry has been staggered by the emergence of eighty-two separate allegations made against bigshot producer Harvey Weinstein.[1] In the initial allegations, several high profile celebrities accused him of rape, sexual assault, and coercion, and these reports seem to have opened the floodgates. Indeed, since the Weinstein scandal began, many other Hollywood giants have been marked as sexual predators in the media, including the former head of Amazon Studios Roy Price, House of Cards actor Kevin Spacey and director James Toback.

What is striking about these allegations, aside from the horrific nature of the experiences they recount, is the sheer volume of them. Both men and women across the film, fashion, and music industries are coming forward, finally reporting incidents that took place years ago, sometimes decades. This epidemic has reinforced the morbid truth: we have developed a culture in which victims of rape, sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence feel unsafe or incapable of reporting abuse. According to the criminal justice system, only 310 perpetrators of rape in the US are reported out of every 1000, and only 7 of these 310 reports lead to a felony conviction.[2]

These statistics are deeply troubling; they demonstrate why those who stand accused do not fear the consequences of their actions (a glaring example: Weinstein is currently spending time in an expensive sex addiction facility, not in police custody). They also show that silence on the matter of sexual abuse is ubiquitous. It permeates every level of society, from the household names of the film industry to the average American citizen.

With this kind of stigma around the reporting of these crimes, we must address the issues which prevent people from speaking up. While fear seems to be the most likely explanation, it is not simply a fear of the perpetrator’s ability to physically harm. Often people are afraid to report the abuse because they know their abuser, and are therefore likely to be in regular contact, as is the case with workplace harassment and domestic violence. There is also the very real fear of being disbelieved, especially if the victim has stated that they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time; this should not detract from the validity of their account, but all too often it does.

According to the allegations, Weinstein used his widespread influence within the film industry to coerce many women into silence after the abuse had taken place, threatening to discredit them both professionally and personally. Therefore, there is also the fear of an abuse of power, for if the perpetrator is in a position of authority (as is so often the case) a person may choose to stay silent out of self-preservation.

Miraculously, the last few weeks have seen a promising lift in the silence surrounding sexual assault. This does not only apply to the many celebrities naming their abusers, but also the hordes of people using the hashtag #MeToo across social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter. #MeToo has enabled those who have suffered rape, assault, harassment and domestic abuse to explain their experiences safely in a public space, find solidarity in others who have suffered similar traumas, and hopefully feel some sense of relief.

While it’s shocking to think that it took something as extreme as the Weinstein case to cause a tangible increase in the reporting of sexual assault, the international outrage that it sparked has visibly motivated victims of abuse to come forward, seemingly across all levels of society. Hopefully, the reports brought on by the #MeToo campaign will eventually translate into higher rates of formal accusations, police investigations and prosecution.

In the meantime, it is crucial that we keep on asking what can be done to try and stop this prolific abuse. Protestors and activists worldwide are calling for more proactive education around consent, appropriate workplace behavior and the duty of the bystander in domestic violence. We must also continue to encourage the assertion of victims’ voices, and dispute the narrative of victim-blaming every time we come across it.

Despite the disturbing barrage of events being reported, it is hugely reassuring to see this damaging, violent behavior being called out. Each time the perpetrators are reported, whether it is to the police, the press or on social media, the stigma of shame and victim-blaming that surrounds this abuse is erased a little further.



[1] For the full list of allegations, please go to https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/10/28/16564486/harvey-weinstein-sexual-abuse-list-twitter

[2] For these statistics, please go to https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system