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The first of many: Harvey Weinsteins' incarceration

Updated: Jun 20, 2021

by Khushi Joshi, second year at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences

Illustration by Akshay Jose

In the first incarceration of the many heinous offences committed, Harvey Weinstein was convicted for multiple counts of sexual assault and harassment on 11th March, 2020. Being the first case to openly hold a man of immense social and economic capital accountable, it paved the way for women all across the world to speak out.

It was the account of actress Alyssa Milano that helped the current phase of #metoo movement kick off, almost a decade after Tarana Burke started it. In an industry dominated by white cis hetero men who occupied positions of power, the story of Alyssa was one of many. While laws against sexual harassment had existed for years, systemic inequalities rendered such laws futile. Dozens of women, ranging from actresses to assistants, later came out with their stories and revealed the many ways in which these men used their positions of power to exploit and harass these women.

The numerous methods employed by such perpetrators included usage of nondisclosure agreements that would prevent their employees from disclosing any sort of harassment incidents to even their family members, allowing these men to essentially buy their silence. The Weinstein case revealed how systemic differences aided structures of power and how the privilege of such men allowed them to get away with their actions for so long. Not only did this lead to a cultural shift in the way sexual harassment is discussed and perceived, it also led to a rise in general consciousness of the devastating everyday experiences of these survivors.

The #metoo movement also garnered worldwide recognition, revealing how sexual harassment and assault plays out in different countries and institutions. From Japan’s sexist office dress codes that compelled women to wear heels, China’s survivors battling online censorship to India’s survivors calling out judges, comedians and politicians, it was clear that these stories were not to be swept under the rug anymore.The illusion of free speech was shattered and a grown recognition of social costs attached to women speaking out made it clear that the social tyranny that constantly silences these women had to stop.

As the trailblazer case for the entire movement, the judgment delivered is definitely a victory in terms of setting a precedent. Considering the evidence that was presented against Weinstein, his prosecution was certain with the years of term ranging from 5 to 29. With a 23-year persecution, the judgement definitely has helped boost some amount of faith in due process in ensuring justice for these survivors. Furthermore, as a landmark case, it is also an indication that men holding economic and social capital are also capable of being held accountable. Therefore, this also brings about the hope that the number of cases of sexual harassment will decrease and the rise in consciousness about sexual misconduct and behaviour will also reflect in everyday instances.

However, the systemic changes that we dream of achieving are nowhere closer now that the judgement has been delivered. It is imperative to note that the clear evidence and facts as well as the relatively expansive sexual harassment laws of New York almost ensured Weinstein’s conviction. Many perpetrators such as Bill Cosby still manage to escape with a life sentence of 5-10 years and most manage to not get convicted at all. It was also indicative of how slow and excruciating legal processes remain for the victims. While the cultural shift that the movement aims to achieve is still underway, the decision does pave the way for women to take that courageous first step of speaking out.

As a movement that started out as an act of defiance against conventional norms of silencing the survivors, every case that brings the perpetrators down is a big achievement. Comparing the society’s position with regards to the backlash that the movement initially received, criticizing women for acting out or coming out with their stories too late, every individual case won is a victorious step towards the penultimate goal. These convictions also add to the narrative of believing survivors and aiding them legally and socially, so that they at least get a chance of a fair trial. Every resignation, dismissal and conviction also help ensure that the backlashes do not eclipse the successes.

It makes an impact on the survivors when they believe that someone as powerful as Weinstein could be called out and convicted, maybe their perpetrators can be too. It makes it clear that although free speech, the way it was envisioned by JS Mill still remains a dream deferred, the costs that render it unattainable are diminishing. The effects of the courage and strength shown by the survivors is evident in the conversation and action that is still existing and remains dependent on the continuation of these very steps.

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