In the midst of the #MeToo movement, sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein can feel like a tale as old as time. But really, it’s a tale as old as October 2017, when The New York Times and The New Yorker published infamous allegations of sexual assault against the prominent movie producer over the course of decades – many coming from women whom he attempted to pay off.
Since the story broke in 2017, an unprecedented number of women have come forward against Weinstein, often through social media. Accusations ranged from rape to sexual misconduct and amount to around 100 women. It’s these same accusations that are often credited with spurring the viral #MeToo movement (although it was actually Tarana Burke who created the original campaign in 2007). #MeToo offered survivors a space, albeit virtual, to share their experiences and find solidarity among others. These allegations also inspired the term “Weinstein Effect,” which is used to describe the wave of influential men accused of sexual assault in the time after the story broke.
Despite this, it wasn’t until almost three years after the original accusations, on Jan. 23, 2020, that disturbingly detailed opening statements for the criminal trial against Weinstein occured in Manhattan – a case in which survivors will get a chance to take the stand. It is important to note that out of the 100 women who have come forward against Weinstein, only cases against two women are officially being charged in the case: Jessica Mann and Mimi Haleyi. According to Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Professor and former prosecutor Deborah Tuerkheimer, reasons for this could range anywhere from statute of limitations, to jurisdiction laws, to the fact that certain allegations against Weinstein weren’t always criminal.
But, that doesn’t mean other survivors won’t have a role in the trial. Other women, including actress Annabella Sciorra, will serve as witnesses in trial, using their accusations to bolster the case of the prosecution. Besides, the jury itself will inevitably be influenced by allegations circulating social media in the age of #MeToo. In fact, it took over two weeks to create a jury, with a plethora of potential jurors being deemed unable to remain impartial.
On Tuesday in Harris Hall, the evening before the case’s opening argument, Tuerkheimer discussed the Weinstein trial in the age of #MeToo in which social media and online platforms play such a prominent role in facilitating sexual assault allegations. Tuerkheimer referred to this modern transmission of information as “informal reporting,” a concept which she describes as a considerable advantage to the way the U.S. legal system tackles sexual assault. Not only does it help circumnavigate the common failures of formal reporting, but it also offers a sense of “victim empowerment … [through] catharsis, validation and solidarity,” Tuerkheimer said.
“Unofficial reporting has become a force to reckon with,” Tuerkheimer said.
But Tuerkheimer also spoke on the possible downsides of informal reporting, focusing specifically on how the public’s perception of a lack of formal processes can lead to an attempt to discredit survivors.
At Northwestern, Director of the Center for Awareness, Response and Education (CARE) Carrie Wachter said this is something herself and colleagues are worried about as the Weinstein trial progresses. As was seen with Christine Blasey Ford during the Brett Kavanaugh trial, bringing survivors into the spotlight to discuss such personal attacks often opens up intense public criticism of survivors’ credibility. This, Wachter said, could have incredibly dangerous implications for the way sexual assault is dealt with in the legal system.
“This is a constant thing that happens in this society,” Wachter said. “You discredit survivors who have experienced this harm in order to justify the behavior because it’s too difficult, sometimes, to believe that this behavior is a thing that happens in our world.”
But Wachter still has hope that this will not be the case. For the five years Wachter has worked with CARE, she said she has noticed a positive change in the way sexual assault is talked about on campus, just as Tuerkheimer agrees that there has been an overall shift in our culture in regards to sexual assault.
There is certainly a difference, though, between working to positively change conversations surrounding sex and sexual assault, and holding attackers accountable. At Northwestern CARE, Wachter says one of their main goals is to increase conversations about accountability. A higher possibility of being able to hold abusers accountable, Wachter said, could be effective in giving more survivors the courage they need to come forward.