I’ve spent the last fifteen years as a researcher examining sexual assault survivors’ experiences of navigating the criminal justice system. Like many who work with survivors, I was a bit surprised and much relieved that Harvey Weinstein was convicted.
I’ve followed the reactions to the verdict online and in the media closely, and while I join with those that celebrated the conviction, I can’t join in with the narrative that we’ve arrived at justice. Not yet.
Sexual Assault and Rape Have Lifelong Consequences
One hundred women have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape. Sexual assault has lifelong consequences for victims. Many experience significant anxiety, depression, fear, difficulty trusting others and difficulty with romantic relationships. Many develop post-traumatic stress disorder. These effects interfere with their day-to-day living—their ability to function and to thrive.
Studies demonstrate that even victims whose cases are successful find testifying to be incredibly traumatic. Dawn Dunning talked about her experience of testifying against Weinstein, saying “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I would not wish this on anyone.” Weinstein’s victims had to listen to Weinstein’s defense attorney Donna Rotunno imply that they were lying. Moreover, they were forced to read her statement in the media that she had never been assaulted because she wouldn’t never put herself in those circumstances—suggesting people assaulted by Weinstein were to blame.
This layering on of trauma is common, and not reason to celebrate. Research shows these blaming and disbelieving responses to victims exacerbate their trauma symptoms from the initial assault. Convicting Harvey Weinstein and preventing him from harming others in the future is important and deserved. But “justice” is not the right word when the harm these women have experienced from the assault—and then again from the criminal justice system—can’t be undone.
The Unique Case of Harvey Weinstein
The Weinstein case had unique circumstances, without which it may have been just one more case that never went anywhere. Weinstein’s accusers included famous, primarily white women with large platforms. Their accusations were covered in the news broadly, allowing more women to come forward and bolstering their credibility. The media attention also created public pressure to show this case was being taken seriously. Many cases aren’t.
Such coverage is rarely available to survivors of sexual assault. In fact, one of Weinstein’s victims reported her assault to the police in 2015, before the #MeToo movement went viral on social media. The press covered the allegation, but they smeared her for past behavior that was unrelated to the assault, and the prosecutor did not press charges.
Only a Fraction of Sexual Assaults Result in Conviction
Research confirms that only a fraction of sexual assaults—0.2 to 5.2 of all assaults, and 3 to 26 percent of assaults reported to the police—will result in conviction.
To be sure, some cases don’t have enough evidence to support a conviction. But there’s also evidence that all too frequently, the criminal justice system doesn’t complete basic investigative steps, like processing rape kits or interviewing witnesses, to ensure that cases get a fair chance at being prosecuted.
Research also confirms that success in the criminal justice system isn’t equally available to all survivors. LGBTQ survivors, women of color, low-income survivors, immigrant survivors, survivors with disabilities and men all experience unique barriers to reporting, and may not have their cases taken seriously because of who they are.
I’ve seen this happen, up close. One adolescent I interviewed described how the police refused to conduct a full investigation of her case because she had a prior charge of underage drinking—completely unrelated to the assault. In another study I worked on, a woman described being raped by her husband, who she was in the process of divorcing. She had to reason believe he drugged her to commit the rape, and she wanted her rape kit processed to see if he had. The authorities would not submit it for analysis.
Certainly the Weinstein conviction shows progress. Many sexual assault researchers are glad that someone so powerful was convicted.
And yet, we can’t call it justice, when the harm of the assault can never be undone, when the criminal justice system adds further harm, and when so many cases aren’t even taken seriously enough to be fully investigated.
True Justice for Survivors: Criminal Justice Reform
Here’s what a more “just” criminal system would look like for survivors: Lasting systemic reform.
Criminal justice system personnel using trauma-informed practices that help victims provide evidence and help mitigate the secondary trauma they experience. Reliance on full investigations, rather than perceptions of victim credibility and perpetrator culpability that are frequently biased and rooted in inaccurate and sexist and racist beliefs about victims and perpetrators. And support for victims and communities pursuing alternatives to the criminal justice system.
Many police and prosecutors are already working to make these changes. We need to acknowledge their good work and lobby state legislatures to provide incentives and the resources to help more of them do it. Some states have been implementing helpful policies—like requiring rape kits to be submitted for analysis and tracked.
But failure to submit rape kits is a symptom of a broader problem, one that can only be solved by broad reform and increased resources to ensure that full, fair and trauma-informed investigations become the norm.
Most of all, we have to keep working on creating a culture shift that prevents sexual assault from happening in the first place. When we live in a world where people are not systematically targeted by sexual violence, and then systematically overlooked by groups that are supposed to help, then that will be justice.