Harvey Weinstein’s attorney has recently argued that Weinstein cannot be guilty of assault if a woman engages in “friendly communication” and alleged “consensual sex.” The fact that this is a valid defense in a court of law only proves how far away our society is from upholding women’s rights.
False narratives that direct responsibility and blame at sexual assault survivors only perpetuate an ideology of male ownership and entitlement to women’s bodies.
You were raped because of what you were wearing.
You shouldn’t have been drinking.
If you hadn’t been out alone, it wouldn’t have happened.
You are responsible.
It was your fault.
This is victim-blaming. The idea that we would fault someone who is the target of a crime is absurd. Yet people do it every day. And apparently it is an acceptable legal defense.
Weinstein’s legal argument would also suggest that there is a “right way” for how one might respond after a traumatic event. That there is a code of conduct for how one acts after they are assaulted.
This false narrative is a fallacy that is so ridiculous, I find it hard to understand how an attorney could use this as justification in a court case. Weinstein’s attorney would never use the same defense if the charge was murder.
He isn’t responsible for murdering her, after all, they were friends.
She’s at fault; she slept with him before he stabbed her.
If she hadn’t worn such revealing clothing, she wouldn’t have been killed.
She asked for it.
The responsibility, the fault, and the ownership of an inappropriate action are on the perpetrator. Yet it seems impossible for people to differentiate sexual assaults from other crimes. This only perpetuates the false narrative that men have entitlement over women’s bodies. Perpetuating the myth that a sexual assault survivor has any responsibility for the crime done unto them.
Furthermore, there is no one way, and no “right” way, to respond after a traumatic event. Psychologists suggest that there are in fact various mechanisms one might use to protect oneself from a life-threatening situation, including, but not limited to the responses of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Some survivors go back to their abuser. Some survivors maintain relationships out of fear of retaliation, or coercion, or manipulation. Maybe they have reported an assault before and the legal system failed them. Maybe they were in shock and reacted accordingly. Maybe life is complicated and there is no book on how to live your life after you have been assaulted.
These false narratives are retold by people in power and they only reinforce these entitled beliefs. How do we move away from an ideology of entitlement of women’s bodies when the president himself says, “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
When two people engage in consensual sexual activities the outcome is not a sexual assault allegation. Yes, false reporting happens, but it is as low as 2 percent of cases that are reported and sadly the large majority (over 60 percent) of rapes and assaults are not reported. Furthermore, over 60 percent or rape survivors do not even acknowledge they were raped; rather they mislabel the behavior as “miscommunication” or “bad sex.” And yes, male entitlement over women’s bodies is only part of the picture when it comes to sexual assault, given that this is not just a heterosexual phenomenon solely perpetrated by men.
As a clinical psychologist who works with survivors of sexual assault and rape, I hear this false narrative of self-blame almost on a daily basis. It was my fault because of something I did. Survivors hear this false narrative from their friends, from their family, from their parents, from the media, and from society in general. These messages lead to shame and stigma.
As a clinical psychologist, I work one-on-one with individuals to challenge these false narratives. We examine the evidence, the facts, that disprove that an assault could be the victim's fault. However, this false narrative has to change on a broader level. Weinstein’s lawyers are using a victim-blaming approach as a smoke-screen, similar to having him use a walker to attempt to project a sense of disability-related weakness or victimhood about himself. A diversion from the real issue. The issue is whether he assaulted these women, not, did these women do something to deserve to be assaulted.
Every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Over 80 percent of women who are assaulted go on to suffer from impairing impacts such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Negative cognitions, such as self-blame, have been linked to PTSD and depressive symptoms. Survivors who hold self-blame are at risk of disrupted recovery and research suggests a link to alterations in the brain.
This inaccurate self-blame is also linked with an increased risk of revictimization. The survivors that I work with have told me how their internalized self-blame has led to alcohol and drug use, the destruction of relationships, distrust in authorities when reporting the assault, and suicide attempts. The false narrative of self-blame can destroy the lives of those who did nothing wrong.
Women and girls are at higher risk (90 percent of survivors are female), with 1 out of 6 women experiences attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Sexual assault and rape are less likely to be committed by a stranger, rather than an intimate partner or acquaintance. We need to educate everyone about the facts and about risk factors to help keep people safe. But there is a difference between being responsible for keeping oneself safe and being responsible for being the victim of a crime and violence.
It’s time we spread a new narrative. This needs to be spread from the top-down in addition to the bottom-up. We need a new narrative that accurately focuses on the responsibility where it belongs.
Jennifer Coleman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with the Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center. She is also a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.