Harvey Weinstein is guilty. A Manhattan jury on Monday found the former Hollywood producer guilty of rape in the third degree and criminal sexual act in the first degree. Weinstein was acquitted, however, on the most serious charges of predatory sexual assault and rape in the first degree.
The conviction is a partial victory for the #MeToo movement, which secured Weinstein’s indictment with tremendous political pressure after the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, had declined to bring charges against Weinstein for years, despite mounting evidence of the producer’s sexual misconduct and a taped confession secured by the New York police with the help of one of his victims.
Weinstein, whose crimes were exposed in breakout investigative articles by the New York Times and the New Yorker, was long thought to be immune to justice. His behavior had been an open secret in the industry for years, and many actresses had found that their professional success was tied to their willingness to perform sexual favors for Weinstein or look the other way when he demanded them of others. He was known to punish those who refused with blacklisting and professional disaster. After the Times and New Yorker articles made his behavior public, a slew of women came forward with similar allegations of abuse, coercion, and blackmail by men in their own industries.
The onslaught of testimonies from women across the country turned Weinstein from a single predator into a symbol of the abuse that women have endured for millennia, and of the apparent impunity of powerful men who had been permitted to continue that abuse without consequence. In reality only Weinstein and two of the many accusations against him were in question at the trial in New York. But symbolically, centuries of women’s suffering at men’s hands were on trial as well.
For such a symbolically overladen event, the outcome was by no means assured. In the weeks before the end of arguments, many feminists had expected a not guilty verdict. Perhaps the cynicism was warranted: of all sexual violence perpetrators, only 0.05% are convicted, and even fewer ever serve time. This is in part because the reporting rates for sexual violence crimes are dramatically lower than for other violent crimes. But it is also because cultural biases that depict women as dishonest and sexual harm as less severe than other kinds of harm. Even when the low reporting rate is taken into account, sexual violence crimes have a lower rate of conviction than other violent crimes, such as robberies or assaults.
The women in question, too, were not perfect victims. Like most victims of sexual violence, they had known their attacker before the assaults, and they maintained a relationship with him after. Their experiences were typical but complicated, flying in the face of popular but false myths about rape that posit that consent was probably present if a victim was on cordial terms with her attacker after the assault. The Weinstein conviction depended on a jury achieving something that many people fail to do in sexual violence cases: hearing women’s complicated stories, and choosing to recognize the harm done to them anyway.
The sense of certainty that Weinstein would walk was heightened on Friday, when the jury delivered a note to the judge indicating that they could not reach a consensus on all the charges – a development that many interpreted, in the end correctly, as meaning that Weinstein would be acquitted on the most serious of the charges. For now, the producer has been sent to jail to await the sentencing phase of the trial, which will begin in March.
If it were not for everything that Weinstein had come to symbolize, it is not clear that charges would have been brought against him at all
If it were not for everything that Weinstein had come to symbolize, it is not clear that charges would have been brought against him at all. That Weinstein was indicted and ultimately convicted is less a testament to the district attorney’s commitment to women’s safety than it is a signal of the emotional and political power that was brought to bear by the #MeToo movement. Weinstein had been untouchable, but then, because of the power brought to bear by women who refused to tolerate or ignore men’s sexual violence against women, he was finally brought to justice. The conviction is less a signal that the criminal justice system can work for victims than a signal that women’s grassroots organizing can accomplish things that would never have otherwise been possible. The symbolic significance of his conviction can’t be overstated: for women, this is a very good day.
Still, I wonder what it really means for Weinstein to be convicted, on only two out of five counts, while so many other abusive men go free. For all the controversy it created, the #MeToo movement has claimed relatively few high-profile arrests, even in cases where evidence is abundant and the number of public accusers reaches into the dozens. In cases of sexual abuse, women’s suffering and men’s misdeeds are still rarely given institutional acknowledgment, rarely treated as important enough to warrant institutional intervention.
You can see his conviction as a victory for these women, a testament to how powerful they can be, taking down an abuser with uncommon influence and wealth. Or you can see his conviction as too small a victory, won after too long and great a fight, a symbol not of how far we have come in taking sexual abuse seriously but of how far we still have to go. After all, more than 100 women accused Weinstein himself, and thousands of others came forward with their stories of sexual abuse by other men in the wake of the revelations against him. Why did it take so many?
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist
In the US, Rainn offers support at 800-656-4673 or by chat at Rainn.org. In the UK, the rape crisis national freephone helpline is at 0808-802-9999. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800-737-7328) or 1800respect.org.au. Other international helplines can be found at Ibiblio.org.