By Karly Stilling
A few months ago, I saw a post on Facebook that said, you may not like protests but you have them to thank for the world you live in.
The thought has stuck with me over the past weeks. As the trial against Harvey Weinstein progressed towards this week’s verdict, I’ve been thinking a lot about what protest movements mean and what they’re capable of accomplishing.
About what it means to take a stand for something and what happens when the world responds—or doesn’t.
When you think of a protest, you probably think of people marching in the streets.
At the moment, many of these protests are happening around the world: in Hong Kong, Delhi, Greece, Lebanon, Chile, people are calling for political change. Other protest movements focus on social or cultural change: Extinction Rebellion, the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter.
These are movements that take place in the streets of major cities, with crowds of thousands gathering with signs and chants for change. Their goals usually include getting attention through disruption. They are visible, but the change they champion rarely is.
Then there are the kinds of protests that don’t play out on the streets. The protests that happen in our homes and offices, on our social media feeds and in discussions with friends. These are the protests that become social movements. These are the protests that bring about change.
And this week, two and a half years after #MeToo became just such a movement, the man who was at the root of it all—Harvey Weinstein—has finally been held accountable.
Back in 2017, when the New York Times broke the Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement took off, the only part of the whole thing that I found shocking was how surprised some people seemed to be that the problem was so widespread.
On my Facebook feed, I said as much. My #MeToo post read “Me too. And I’d honestly be shocked if any woman I’ve ever met couldn’t say the same. As a culture, we—men and women—need to keep standing up and saying ‘Stop. Enough.’”
The conversations I heard around me about the issue of sexual assault suggested that men and women alike were taken aback by the ubiquity of #MeToo. But what woman, I wondered, hasn’t experienced sexual assault?
Show me one who hasn’t, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t understand what the words ‘sexual assault’ mean.
- Had your butt or breast grabbed by a stranger in the street? Sexual assault.
- Been forcibly kissed by someone you’ve said no to and tried to push away? Sexual assault.
- Had a superior (an employer, a teacher, etc) physically come on to you despite your never having indicated any interest other than professional? Sexual assault.
These situations are all too common, and they don’t have to progress to rape to be sexual assault. But there is a difference when we start to talk about criminal sexual assault.
On Monday, Harvey Weinstein was convicted of third-degree rape and a first-degree criminal sexual act. He was acquitted of three other charges, including two more serious charges of predatory sexual assault that could have seen him sentenced to life in prison.
Let’s break that down with a couple of definitions:
- First-degree criminal sexual act: this charge relates to Weinstein forcing oral sex on former production assistant Mariam Haley and carries a sentence of 5-25 years.
- Third-degree rape: this charge relates to Weinstein raping aspiring actress Jessica Mann in 2013. It carries a maximum sentence of four years and has no minimum, but does require that Weinstein register as a sex offender.
What exactly is third-degree rape, and why does it carry no minimum sentence and a maximum of only four years?
Under New York law, third-degree rape is when a person engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is incapable of consent by reason of some factor other than being less than 17 years old, who is less than 17 years old and the defendant is 21 years old or more, or when the person’s consent is withheld for some other reason than incapacity to consent.
Confused? Me too.
As far as I can tell, first-degree rape requires the use of force, while third-degree rape is based more on the lack of consent.
(Second-degree rape is of a minor under 15 years of age, or someone who is mentally incapacitated and was not applicable in Weinstein’s case).
“The categorisation is questionable,” writes Ella Alexander in Harper’s Bazaar. “[All] rape by nature requires forcible compulsion. Our concept of consent is evolving, but what we can ascertain from the jury’s verdict is that the jury did think Weinstein committed a nonconsensual act, but didn’t apply violent force.”
The charges he was acquitted of are one count of first-degree rape and two counts of predatory sexual assault—which doesn’t mean he was exonerated, but that the defence was unable to prove these charges to an adequate degree.
With over 100 women having alleged being abused by Weinstein, it’s hard to see how that doesn’t amount to predatory sexual assault, but the burden of proof is high and these cases are complicated.
Still, the Weinstein verdict is deeply meaningful. For once, the voices of women have been believed over the story of a powerful white man and we cannot ignore how significant that is.
In a statement on behalf of the #MeToo campaign, the movement’s founder, Tatiana Burke, wrote,
“Today, a jury confirmed what we all know: Harvey Weinstein committed sexual assault. This wouldn’t have been possible without the voices of the silence breakers in and outside of the courtroom, the survivors who courageously testified, and the jurors who, despite an unrelenting and unethical defence strategy, voted to find an unremorseful Harvey Weinstein guilty.”
“Weinstein operated with impunity and without remorse for decades in Hollywood. Yet, it still took years, and millions of voices raised, for one man to be held accountable by the justice system.”
After the long fight that these women have been through, it’s frustrating that Weinstein was only convicted of his lesser charges. Many of his victims will never see justice for the crimes committed against them because the American judicial system still imposes a statute of limitations on sexual assault.
With everything we know about serious sexual assault—that it has a life-long impact for victims, that it is rarely a one-off occurence, that victims are often unable or unwilling to report it for many serious and valid reasons—a statute of limitations on charging these kinds of crimes seems deeply unjust.
Next weekend, countries around the world will celebrate International Women’s Day. But I’m starting to wonder, what are we celebrating?
Women’s achievements, ostensibly, and the power we have to affect change. But I look at the world around me, at how far we still have to go: at the gender pay gap, at the high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence, at the treatment of powerful women by the media, and I wonder how much have we really managed to change?
I find myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable about using words like ‘celebrate’ in this context. Cautious about calling the Weinstein verdict a ‘victory’ for #MeToo.
I understand the importance of celebrating female progress. Being a woman in the world is difficult and dangerous, and focusing only on where we have so far failed to make progress without taking a step back to see how far we’ve come can make the fight seem futile. I want to champion our female role models—and I have—but I also feel an increasing need to be cautious, to make sure the pressure doesn’t let up.
We still have so far to go.
Three days after International Women’s Day, Harvey Weinstein will receive his sentence and his victims will finally find out how long he will spend behind bars.
Facing up to 25 years in prison at 67 years of age, there’s a good chance Weinstein may spend the rest of his life behind bars. And let us not forget about California, where Weinstein has also been charged with rape—another chance for justice to be done.
Change may be slow, but it does happen.
When I start to feel hopeless about the state of things for women, I’m going to try thinking of this: when IWD was first celebrated in 1911, women didn’t even have the right to vote yet.
We’ve come a long way since then, in no small part due to the protests that have helped to create the world we live in today; in no small part thanks to the women who have stood up and spoken out.
That, at least, is something worth celebrating.