Harvey Weinstein's trial and understanding sexual assault

Harvey Weinstein's trial and understanding sexual assault
© Getty Images

No doubt, one of the most-watched trials of 2020 will be that of Harvey Weinstein. The former film producer and co-founder of Miramax's trial on sexual assault charges are underway.

Unfortunately, Weinstein’s, as well as other sexual assault trials in the United States, will unfold against the backdrop of common myths about sexual assault. Correcting these falsehoods is critical to justice not only in the courts but in terms of preventing and responding effectively to sexual assault survivors.

As trauma psychologists who have spent collectively over 50 years working with women and men who have been assaulted, here are three things we wish the public, including jury members, knew about this type of trauma.

ADVERTISEMENT

First, most survivors never report their sexual assaults to law enforcement, and there are good reasons why. While some may report immediately, others wait days, months, or even years to contact law enforcement. However, whether and when survivors report sexual assault to law enforcement tells us nothing about the accuracy of their reports.

Deciding to report sexual assault can be a deeply personal and difficult decision. Several things about the assault itself affect the likelihood of reporting. For example, sexual assaults that involved weapons resulted in serious physical injuries, or that were perpetrated by strangers are more likely to be reported. 

Yet, decades of research indicate that the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victim — acquaintances, friends, bosses, and lovers. In the face of assaults by a trusted other or person in power, survivors often fear that they will not be believed or that they will face some retribution or loss if they do report — loss of family support, loss of their jobs.

The realities of the criminal justice system are also stacked against survivors deciding to report to the police. For example, only about one in five cases reported to the police result in arrest. Thus, victims often have to weigh their best guesses about whether their cases will be taken seriously against the reality that most never lead to arrest, let alone a conviction.

Second, once survivors do report, their memories are often questioned. What many do not understand is that memory, including memory for traumatic events, does not work like a video recording. The story of what happened during the assault may (or may not) come out as a clear, coherent story

ADVERTISEMENT

Common reactions during and after the assault can leave gaps in memory and lead to less coherent descriptions of what happened. Other reactions can lead to vivid memories. This means that we shouldn’t expect that all survivors will necessarily have — or not have — memory problems.

For example, when someone dissociates, thoughts, feelings, physical sensations that are usually integrated can end up fragmented. Victims who are highly dissociative at the time of trauma or as a general coping response in life can have a harder time remembering or telling the story of what happened.

But, that doesn’t mean that their memories are any more prone to errors than other people’s. In contrast, posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms after the sexual assault can go hand in hand with frequent re-living of vivid, painful memories.

Despite how complicated memory is, there is reason to trust the central features of victims’ memories for sexual assault. For example, consider memories for crimes that happen under the influence of alcohol, since sexual assault frequently involves alcohol.

A recent meta-analysis looked at 10 carefully controlled laboratory studies to test the impact of alcohol on memory for witnessing details about crimes. Across more than 1,000 participants, drinking led to a recall of fewer details about the event, but not more memory errors. This means there might be more holes in people’s memory with alcohol, but not more errors.

Third, there is no single way that survivors respond during or after an assault, in terms of their behaviors or their emotions. Unfortunately, people (including police) tend to have stereotypes about the ways that they think people will behave if they were raped. For example, expectations that “real” victims all fight back or all appear visibly distraught afterward. 

The reality is that some survivors fight back, and others freeze. After the assault, some cry while others feel emotionally empty and numb. Some victims feel overwhelming emotions directed at other people, such as rage or betrayal. Others direct intensely negative emotions at themselves, feeling shame or self-blame.

Some avoid the assailant at all costs. Others attempt to maintain a connection with the person who assaulted them, particularly if that person is a caregiver, loved one, or someone on whom victims are dependent.

Sexual assault remains incredibly commonharmful, and wildly under-reported. Myths about sexual assault affect survivors’ access to justice and resources to help with healing. We hope that the public — and juries who are selected in Weinstein and other assault trials this year — will lean on science to guide them in responding to the realities of sexual assault.

Anne P. DePrince, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver whose trauma research focuses on the consequences of violence against women and children. Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.