Photo credits: rte.ie.
Why the news of Harvey Weinstein is one small piece of a recurring narrative, and how we can inspire the first plot twist
It’s one of the first words that we learn as infants. Why? Firstly, because of its delightfully monosyllabic simplicity, rendering it one of the easiest assertions in the English language. Secondly, due to its remarkable utility: It helps us to navigate our daily activities, be they menial or complex. Most significantly, however, due to its resounding importance: we need to be able to refuse consent of any kind, if we are to exercise our freedom from servitude under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You’d think that over time, as our infancy developed into adulthood, that the word would bear more weighting and warrant more respect. But…no.
Why not? Firstly, amidst the male-dominated, sexually-exploitative culture that lays beneath the belly of Hollywood, saying no is simply not simple. Women have been forced to accept that saying “no” to sexual advances from powerful men brings with it the threat of harming our careers trajectory or even existence. Secondly, its utility has diminished: it is only as useful as the recognition or response of the person to whom it is addressed. Therefore, the perpetual zeitgeist of “boy’s will be boys” that has transcended the boundary from playground to workplace, has established a distinct ignorance that infects both the observer and the aggressor at times of misconduct. Most fundamentally, however, its importance unfortunately depends upon people’s perceptions of its proclaimer. In an entertainment industry where men constitute more than 70% of the story-tellers and thus retain a large portion of power, the perception that their opinions, and even desires, are simply more important than the women whom they employ, is perpetually normalised.
Therefore, the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein are shocking but ultimately unsurprising. When two decades ago, he allegedly had the young actress Ashley Judd sent up to his room to watch him shower, or when, according to former actresses Heather Kerr and Rosanna Arquette, he grabbed their hands and forced them to touch his genitals, or in 2015 when he apparently badgered a temporary assistant into giving him a massage whilst naked, why did no one speak up? When he supposedly blocked the door until actresses Melissa Sagemiller, Katherine Kendall and Cara Delevigne would
engage in sexual activity, when he purportedly forcibly performed oral sex on Asia Argento-Weinstein and Mimi Haleyi, or when he alleged forcibly penetrated actresses Natassia Malthe, Lysette Anthony, Anabella Sciorra (violently) and Paz de la Huerta (on two occasions), why did he not accept their attempts at rejection? How is it possible that he got away with supposedly sexually assaulting over forty women, over a course of two decades? Because in a society where silence breeds silence, women have lost their voice.
That’s where we fit in. There are two fundamental ways in which we, collectively, must tackle this muted reality; firstly, by shaping people’s initial perception of rape, and secondly, by changing our response to rape allegations.
In many parts of the world, assault prevention starts and ends with what women can do to avoid putting themselves in ‘high risk’ situations; an ineffective method that shifts the blame to the victim for being raped, rather than putting it on the rapist for actually committing the crime. A significant example of this is Kenya. For years, Kenya has faced an epidemic of sexual assault. 1 in 4 women and girls living in Nairobi have been sexually assaulted. In 2010, the group ‘No Means No Worldwide’, when talking to girls, were told that the biggest problems were the boys themselves, whilst the boys confirmed this through admitting the belief that rape was justified if committed upon girls who are out alone after dark, wear miniskirts, or are taken on expensive dates.
These justifications are all too familiar; rape has been so insidiously normalised that it’s justifications extend to a global-scale. Whilst this actuality is alarming, it also suggests the potential for applying a universal solution. Wouldn’t it be great if we found one that worked, you ask? Well I have news for you: the groups in Kenya already have. The real question you should be asking is, why isn’t the rest of the world using it?
As Collins Omondi, a ‘Your Moment of Truth’ leader, stated, “if they say the boys are actually the problem, then boys can actually be part of the solution”. In staying true to this belief, the group began offering self-defence classes to Nairobi schoolgirls, teaching them to fight back against rape. Soon after, programme founders worked to develop ‘Your Moment of Truth’, a separate program for boys that involved discussions about whether it’s OK to rape someone. I’ll give you a hint: it’s never OK.
Following the programme’s huge success, Omondi’s hypothesis has been proven to be true; the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that boys who go through trainingwere more likely to intervene when witnessing a girl being assaulted, and they were less likely to verbally harass girls. Additionally, rape in the area had been reduced by a dramatic 50%. Therefore, there does exist a proven model in the world, and more significantly, its focus is very different to the one most commonly circulated. With victim-blaming, rape whistles and skirt regulations a common occurrence in society after society, it is all too clear that we must actively alter our perceptions of rape. The world needs to take a cue from Kenya: empower girls and teach men not to rape.
More controversially, we must also accept our responsibility to believe rape allegations, when they are coming from someone close to us. A predominant reason that victims are easily manipulated into never coming forward is for fear of not being believed. This links back to our initial perceptions of rape; it can once again be attributed to society’s promptness to victim-blame. Think back to any allegations of sexual assault that you’ve heard of: what almost always follows are attitudes of uncertainty, questioning and even disbelief.
It is important to note the careful use of words such as ‘allegedly’ and ‘supposedly’ during the earlier discussion of Weinstein’s allegations. Weinstein is still very much under investigation and in the eyes of the law he is still innocent until proven guilty. Whilst it is likely that the Hollywood Mogul’s guilt will be discussed in abundance during the dramatic media fury following the first few weeks of such accusations, if the casedoes not progress, in true natural human trend interest will be lost and the topic forgotten. Moreover, during any discourse surrounding sexual abuse, one will often be reminded of the danger of jumping to the presumption of guilt. However, in striving to remain objective when confronted with cases such as this, in conjunction with a steady decline in interest, we inevitably risk further silencing Weinstein and others’ distressed and numerous accusers into oblivion.
Please consider this: there is a reason why we are separated from the law. Unlike the judiciary, we are not bound to the belief that those accused of sexual abuse are indisputably innocent until further notice. Rather, we are able to weigh up information more freely and make our judgements before the judiciary. The legal system engages in a longer, more meticulous judgement process, whilst we retain the freedom to a shorter, separate judgement process based on evidence that may not be legally valid but nevertheless may still carry validity. It all depends on our perception of what constitutes ‘evidence’ and whether it makes more sense to think ‘rationally’ or ‘instinctively’; is evidence, as in the eyes of the law, merely rooted in material proof, or can it be contrived from intuition? And what about trust? While the law needs specific details in order to determine a punishment, we need only trust our instincts to make a judgement as individuals, and to shape our response accordingly.
Indeed, our ‘unofficial’ judgement is positively essential; our response holds with it the power to send potent messages and shape future enduring attitudes. This is especially important when we consider that Weinstein, much like many other sexual abusers, allegedly threatened the future of women’s careers on almost every occasion. Each victim’s story brings with it an overwhelming sense of fear, whether pre-emptively or as a result of real threats. Rosanna Arquette admitted that when she rejected Weinstein’s sexual advances, she found herself removed from projects or passed over for roles and that “He made things very difficult for me for years”. Asia Argento didn’t speak up because she knew he had “crushed a lot of people before”. Daryl Hannah, ‘Splash’ actress, experienced “instant repercussions” after she refused to let Weinstein feel her breasts.
All of the above exemplify how sexual assault cases cannot be treated with the conventional passivity–until-further-notice that is conducted with due process. If we allow ourselves to turn the other way until ‘tangible’ evidence of sexual misconduct emerges, meanwhile the sexual abusers in question are allegedly coercing their victims into silence, we will in most cases be waiting forever and nothing will ever change. What will follow is a vicious cycle whereby the attitudes of the abuser, the victim and the public will remain in a perpetual state of ignorance. If this is seen as a way to follow the guiding idiom of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as a moral torch, I would like to shed our eyes onto another factual light.
Only between 2% and 10% of all rape accusations are estimated to be false.
Surprised? I was. If we are apparently so insistent on using empirical evidence as our guiding tools for judgement, then this salient fact should be the first for which we reach from under our belt, to revamp the conversation.
Let me place this concept into context: hypothetically, what would you do if you were confronted with an unknown species of spider, whilst your friend or family member insisted that it was poisonous? Despite the questionable authority and dependability of your ally, you’d most likely react with cautious belief until it was ultimately proven to be safe by a professional. I believe that this should mirror the individual vs. legal response in cases of rape. If your friend told you that they had been raped, you should respond with cautious belief. In no way does this deem their alleged abuser as indisputably guilty: this certainty should be reserved for the court. Nevertheless, your response on a personal level is still overwhelmingly important. If victims were always met with belief from those close to them, which the statistics suggests that they should be, this is what will ultimately spoke the wheels of this vicious cycle. It will provide victims with the confidence to speak openly about their experiences, and as a result, deter sexual abusers from committing the crime.
Our informal judgements alone are not going to place Weinstein or any of his contemporaries behind bars. Whilst it is often seen as a punitive force, we must remember that the law is also a protective one. In accordance with the law stating that everyone has the right to a defence, the legal system, immediately following allegations, essentially provides the accused with support. And I believe it is our job as individuals in society to provide the accusers with theirs. If we do not, they are left isolated; in a worse situation than their alleged abusers. If we are striving for fairness, then this imbalance is anything but.
Thus, I urge you, when confronting the issue of rape, shift your focus. In the face of rape allegations from kith and kin, don’t be dismissive. In both cases, actively engage yourselves. Your voice is needed. All of your voices. In the words of Rose McGowan, one of Weinstein’s alleged victims, “women fight on. And to the men out there, stand up. We need you as allies”.