Harvey Weinstein’s 23-Year Prison Sentence Gives Survivors A Voice

Photo: John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock.
On Wednesday morning, Harvey Weinstein, who arrived at the Manhattan court in a wheelchair and handcuffs, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on one count of a criminal sexual act, and an additional 3 years on one count of rape in the third degree. This sentencing followed the February verdicts finding Weinstein guilty of raping Jessica Mann at a Midtown hotel in 2013, and forcibly performing oral sex on Miriam Haley in 2006.
Haley and Mann gave victim impact statements to Judge James Burke, who — along with the six women who testified against Weinstein and were seated in the front row — listened to their powerful words. 
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“It scarred me deeply, mentally and emotionally,” said Haley. “What he did not only stripped me of my dignity as a human being and a woman, but it crushed my confidence.”
“I don’t know how to explain the horrors of being raped by someone who has power,” said Mann. “The impact on the psyche is profound. Rape is not just one moment…it is forever.”
Prosecutors argued that Weinstein’s sentence should reflect his "lifetime of abuse" and “total lack of remorse.” They also hoped his sentence would send a message to other sexual predators, particularly those who have wielded their influence, wealth, and power to avoid accountability. 
Given his chance to speak, Weinstein professed to have “great remorse” while also comparing the #MeToo movement to McCarthyism. “I am totally confused,” he said. “I think men are confused about all of this…this feeling of thousands of men and women who are losing due process, I’m worried about this country.” 
"There are so many people, thousands of people, who would say great things about me,” he added. 
While Weinstein might be confused, there is a growing sense of moral clarity around sexual violence and power dynamics in the United States. Accounts of Weinstein’s sex crimes were something of an open secret for decades when in-depth reporting by the New York Times and The New Yorker in October of 2017 exposed the producer's predatory behavior in detail to a post-Trump world. On social media, women began sharing their stories of sexual violence, using the hashtag #MeToo as an expression of solidarity.  Though many were unaware of it at the time, #MeToo was a reference to an activist group founded by Tarana Burke in her work with survivors of sexual violence, most of them young women of color.   
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Many will mark this moment as the most definitive victory to date for the #MeToo movement. District Attorney Cy Vance, who has overseen Weinstein’s prosecution after initially declining to bring charges against him in 2015, has said his decision to prosecute now came from an "evolution of my understanding of the dynamics of sexual assaults." It also came in the wake of a series of successful prosecutions of other high-profile serial predators like Larry Nassar and Bill Cosby
The prosecution of sexual violence in our justice system has a fraught history. The burden lies largely on the victim to prove, not only that they were assaulted, but often, that what happened to them can be defined as sexual assault. The defense leaned heavily into this idea, with Weinstein attorney Donna Rottuno aggressively questioning survivors about the actions they took before and after being assaulted. 
She took things a step further when speaking with New York Times journalist, Meghan Twohey for The Daily podcast, saying that she’d never been sexually assaulted, "Because I would never let myself be put in that position."
The prosecution, anticipating this defense, had earlier countered by presenting Dr. Barbara Ziv as an expert witness who discredited common rape myths, explaining that 85% of rape victims know their attacker, and that only 20% to 40% of cases involved “being raped in a back alley by a stranger” with the victim resisting the attacker. 
Ziv testified about the complex layers of trauma and fear a rape victim navigates, explaining, “Why women continue to have contact with the perpetrator include the fact that as devastating as sexual assault is, most individuals think, ‘I can put it behind me and move on with my life and put it in a box… I don’t want it to get worse. I don’t want this individual who sexually assaulted me to ruin my reputation, to tell people, to ruin my job opportunities… I can handle this physical trauma, but god forbid they ruin the rest of my life.'”
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Weinstein’s intimidation tactics against those who dared to speak out against him are, by now, well-known: hiring ex-Mossad agents and private detectives to dig up “dirt” on victims like Rose McGowan, Annabella Sciorra and Rosanna Arquette, bragging about his ability to have people killed, and exploding into angry tantrums. In Sciorra’s testimony at Weinstein’s trial she spoke not only of the long lasting implications being raped had on her career, but also of the emotional and physical toll it took on her entire life. 
“I cried a lot. I had a lot of what I know is called dissociative experiences. I spent a lot of time alone,” she said. “I didn’t see very many people. I didn’t want to talk about what happened. I disappeared… I began to drink a lot. I began to cut myself a lot.”
While the defense attempted to argue that Weinstein himself was the real victim – we've seen him go from swaggering to hobbled – it's clear that the testimonies of survivors like Sciorra resonated with the judge. It also leaves open the possibility that as a society we may be finally willing to engage in difficult discussions about trauma, and the gender and race dynamics of sexual violence. Whether survivors choose to seek justice thought the carceral system or by alternate methods like civil court or restorative justice, it is most important that their voices are heard and respected and that they are not retraumatized.
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Though the length of today's sentence felt surprising, it also seems fair. It makes sense. Which is why Weinstein and his attorney's claims of "confusion" about the nature of consent feel bumbling and willfully ignorant. In late February as the verdicts came in, the once powerful producer seemed stunned and the New York Times reported that as court officers approached to take him to jail, he refused to move. 
“How could this happen in America?” he asked his legal team.
In America, eight out of 10 survivors of sexual violence knew their rapist. In America, 8% of rapes occured in the workplace. In America 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner and 94% of the victims of these murder suicides are female. Sexual assault is a crime about power, not sex, and for a very long time Weinstein was the most powerful man in Hollywood and one of the most powerful in America. 
As Kenyan playwright and activist Shailja Patel tweeted shortly after the verdicts were announced, “No guilty verdict or jail sentence, even for life, can restore what Harvey Weinstein stole from his victims. Or repair the harm he inflicted in his decades-long reign of terror over an entire industry. But this is a tiny crack in the wall of impunity. Let patriarchy tremble.”
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