My goal with this post is to discuss an underreported feature of sexual assault and to propose feasible personal and policy actions to address this issue. The discussion I’ve seen highlights the role of culture—specifically rape culture. Instead, I’m going to discuss individual behavior with the aim of adding to not replacing the cultural explanation. I’m not an expert, so I’m interested in and open to thoughtful feedback.
The case study is Harvey Weinstein. He hasn’t been found guilty of any criminal offense, but if even one percent of the allegations about him are true, then he is a sex offender and emblematic of the type of behavior that I’m trying to describe.
You can find details of Weinstein’s situation elsewhere. The key feature is his MO: getting young women alone a hotel room, stating explicitly or implying with context that complying with his sexual demands will help their acting career, smearing those who reject him, and quietly settling out-of-court with those who make formal complaints. According to the accusers, this pattern has repeated again and again for more than twenty years.
His behavior strikes me as the behavior of a man who knows that what he’s doing is wrong and goes to great lengths to make sure it doesn’t adversely affect his career. This is where the standard rape culture explanation falls short. Compare this case to the case of Brock Turner. Turner raped a young woman in public and was spotted in the act by passersby. Judge Aaron Persky—fully knowing what Turner had done—sentenced him to only six months in jail. Turner’s father said Turner shouldn’t suffer for “twenty minutes of action.” These three men seem to think that rape isn’t that bad. Turner evidently felt safe raping a woman in public. Persky thought it merited a punishment below the standard minimum for such crimes. Turner’s father thought the effects of rape began and ended with the crime itself. From my understanding, this is rape culture: the pervasive belief that rape isn’t that bad. Clearly rape culture is a huge problem and was at play in both the Turner and Weinstein cases, however I think there is more to the Weinstein case. Unlike Turner, Weinstein assaulted women in private where witnesses weren’t an issue. Unlike Persky, the institutions around Weinstein have started imparting serious consequences; he was fired from his job and removed from the Academy. Unlike Turner’s father, the people close to Weinstein aren’t trying to minimize his actions; his wife is leaving him, and his brother called him “sick and depraved.”
If rape culture doesn’t fully explain what happened with Harvey Weinstein, what can explain it? I think the missing piece is Weinstein’s strategic behavior. Sometimes the word “strategic” has a positive connotation, but I don’t mean it that way. Weinstein was careful and calculated, but used care and calculation to achieve repugnant ends.
Weinstein’s strategy can explain how he thrived in Hollywood despite his crimes being an “open secret.” It’s possible that everyone knew about everything he was doing and didn’t mind, but it seems more likely that no one knew the full story because Weinstein strategically managed the information. He was careful about how he dealt with formal accusations: out of court and with strict rules about disclosure. He was careful about how he dealt with those who rejected him: undermining their careers and credibility before they could take a stand against him. From insider statements, it sounds like most accounts people heard were second- or third-hand. Without a public trial, it could’ve been rumors and speculation. And, there was no public trial.
People often blame the victims for this lack of action because many victims didn’t report the crimes. The lack of formal charges doesn’t indicate weakness on the victims’ part. Instead it indicates a special kind of cruelty on Weinstein’s part. He was strategic about who he attacked and how.
Who did he attack? Young women at the beginning of their careers—people over whom he had the most leverage and who had the least institutional recourse.
And how? Most of the women do not report being raped. In these cases Weinstein made unwanted physical and verbal advances. Disgusting, inappropriate, and illegal, but it seems strategically illegal. He was violent, but in a way that left no bruises. He was sexual, but in a way that left no trace of his bodily fluids.
And he has been accused of rape, but he’s never been brought to court on that charge. This is probably the realm in which I’ve seen the most victim blaming, but it’s also the realm in which it’s most misguided. I suspect that he doubled down on his targeting strategy when he decided who to rape; if so his worst offenses were against the women who he thought were least likely to take legal action. Because he chose carefully, the charges never came up. And, again, this is not the fault of the victims; they shouldn’t have been raped in the first place, so the fact that they were less likely to take action shouldn’t heap blame on the women. Instead, it should heap double the blame on Weinstein for the apparent premeditation.
So, what can be done? From a policy perspective, there is a large benefit to seeking out victims of stigmatized crime and sexual assault in particular. Many of Weinstein’s victims recall feeling disgusted or disappointed with themselves because of what he did. Unfortunately this played right into his strategy because it meant they were often too disgusted or disappointed to talk with others (which might have brought the magnitude of the situation to light earlier) or seek legal recourse. Furthermore, due to Weinstein’s approach, one of their reports alone probably couldn’t have gone anywhere in the legal system. So, if institutions (perhaps casting agencies in Weinstein’s case, but workplaces and schools more generally) actively seek out victims of sexual assault in their midst and make it safe to report, they can prevent it from happening. Details of such a system fall out of the purview of this blog post, but I would be interested in discussing them with informed people.
From a personal perspective, Facebook activism is a reasonable start. The “Me too” statuses that have been circulating make strides toward destigmatizing victimization. By making people feel safe in sharing their experiences with others, Weinstein’s strategy is cut off at the knees. So, don’t make jokes that belittle the impact of sexual assault. If someone brings up sexual assault, take it seriously. Do whatever it takes to make the attackers the problem and let the victims know they did nothing wrong.
Tony graduated in 2012 with majors in mathematics and economics. He now lives in Chicago and is pursuing graduate study in economics. He also has a very good cultural trivia podcast called “Here’s My Number, So Call Me Ishmael” available on Libsyn, iTunes, and Google Play.