May the Harvey Weinstein verdict signify a ground-breaking transformation
A jury of seven men and five women in New York found media mogul Harvey Weinstein guilty Monday on rape and sexual abuse.
For survivors who want to be heard and believed, we hope this verdict did that and more: Women who came forward were trusted more than the myths perpetuated by the defense. In shattering those falsehoods, this verdict could create a seismic shift in how we should hold perpetrators accountable for sexual assault offenses, despite their standing or station in life. As trauma psychologists, we think this could empower more sexual abuse survivors, both women and men, to know that they are not alone, and that healing from trauma is possible.
One of the most profound promises we can imagine is a world where people start by believing survivors — that is, listening to what happened without doubting, judging, or questioning. Why would this be a consequential conversion? Because survivors commonly face contempt, disbelief, blame, and minimization when they disclose.
Yet, when people respond differently — with support, compassion and empathy — the impact is enormous. Here’s what’s possible, captured by pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Judith Herman, “There comes a moment when a sense of connection is restored by another person’s unaffected display of generosity. Something in her that the victim believes to be irretrievably destroyed — faith, courage, decency — is reawakened by common altruism. Mirrored in the action of others, the survivor recognizes and reclaims a lost part of herself.”
Consider a study conducted nearly 30 years ago. Women who had experienced sexual abuse as children reported that believing and understanding were some of the most helpful interventions they received from professional help.
What if because of the Weinstein verdict, and other similar court rulings like Bill Cosby’s, family members and friends, neighbors and co-workers, and the general public understood their power to change the lives of survivors, and the world we live in, by responding to sexual abuse disclosures with affirmation and appreciation?
Sometimes, in introductory women’s studies courses in colleges and universities across this country, abuse survivors have felt empowered by being able to talk about their traumatic experiences. What if, because of this Weinstein verdict, instead of feeling damaged, crazy, bad or alienated, more survivors felt safe and found solidarity outside the classroom, in the larger society? What if, because of this verdict, the pervasive and far-reaching connections imagined by Tarana Burke in founding #MeToo were realized so that everyone knew that there is no shame in being a survivor?
Sometimes the dance of disclosure of violence is complicated, even with health care providers. Rape survivors who sought emergency medical care were asked what services they received and how they were treated by doctors, nurses, and police officers. Parallel accounts were also collected directly from personnel. Not surprisingly, police officers and doctors significantly underestimated the impact they were having on survivors.
What if, because of the Weinstein verdict, the public recognizes that their words and actions have an impact on survivors? That society could digest that survivors experience more emotional distress than many of us think, but they don’t always show or choose to share their emotional pain?
What if loved ones learned to offer unconditional and immediate validation to disclosures of sexual violence? And, wouldn’t it be awesome if we applauded survivors in their courage to reveal personal stories of victimization instead of asking why they didn’t come forward sooner, why they went to a hotel room/bar/date with the perpetrator, and why they wore revealing clothing or drank too much?
Most sexual assault survivors want to believe that the world is a just and fair place. It was neither just nor fair that they were assaulted. The Weinstein verdict is symbolic of a world where justice is yet possible. A world where survivors take back their voice and reclaim their confidence and power. It should help victims to accept themselves as survivors and focus on living well in the present.
There are so many responses to sexual assault, intense feelings of vulnerability and isolation, at times debilitating fear and anxiety, seething anger and feelings of betrayal, alienation, overwhelming sadness and loss, a sense of helplessness. Sexual trauma takes away power and control.
As trauma psychologists, we never like to compare one person’s traumatic history to another. It can be incredibly invalidating and harmful to people’s healing. But the truth is, sexual trauma packs a full-body wallop — psychological, social, physical — like no other. Indeed, decades of research show the strong relationship between sexual violence and lifetime anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, sleep disorders, and suicide attempts. Sexual trauma is also linked to increases in medical health problems and health care utilization and poor quality of life.
There are interventions that work. Survivors need to know that there is a pathway to healing and have a belief in one’s ability to succeed in reaching that reparative route. What if we provide survivors with safety, evidence-based resources for their healing and legislative action? What if this verdict led to the creation of safe spaces for reflection and further consciousness-raising? Places that helped survivors to feel equal, respected, empowered, that promoted sharing and belonging. What if survivors got help accessing any health care treatment or other recovery services they needed?
Since Weinstein was convicted, this should alert and chasten those in power that norms are changing. What if the new norms came to include accountability, believing, and prevention? Such changes would have reverberating effects in survivors speaking their truths sooner. In friends and loved ones learning how to respond supportively to survivors. And in communities investing in preventing sexual violence from happening in the first place.
May the Weinstein verdict signify a ground-breaking transformation — a new and long-standing commitment to survivors of sexual violence who no longer need to cope by complying, who can take further empowering steps in their lives. What if you join us in making this vision come true? If we’re all in it together to support survivors, hold abusers accountable, and prevent sexual violence, then that potential for transformation will become unstoppable.
Joan M. Cook, Ph.D., is a clinical 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.
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.