By Lieff Cabraser Attorney Avery Halfon
Harvey Weinstein’s criminal conviction for felony sex crimes may be a watershed moment in our cultural recognition and legal handling of sexual misconduct. The more than 90 women who spoke out about Weinstein’s abuse deserve an enormous amount of credit for their bravery, which awakened a societal sea change through the #MeToo movement that led to this guilty verdict.
Among the impacts of Weinstein’s conviction, the women he abused may value most the formal “recognition of the harm they suffered and that it matters,” as sexual assault researcher Deborah Tuerkheimer wrote in the New York Times in the wake of the verdict. Through months of speaking with victims of sexual harassment and assault, Professor Tuerkheimer found that, in addition to having their harm recognized as real and important, victims wanted to protect possible future victims. The first goal—recognition and understanding—serves to achieve the second—prevention.
Professor Tuerkheimer’s findings echo what sexual assault survivors (and other victims of crime and harm) voice over and over about what matters most to them, often even more than compensation or punishment: for the offender to “get it.” That is, for the offender—be it perpetrator, enabler, or institution—to understand internally and acknowledge externally how their conduct affected the victims and, from that understanding, to internalize why they should change their conduct and not do it again.
In other words, victims want to see the offender undergo internal change and choose to stop offending, spurred by recognition and acknowledgement of the harm caused. When offenders recognize the harm they’ve caused, it serves dual purposes: it can lead to prospective prevention, while also having a retrospective healing effect for victims.
For example, Chanel Miller, the author of Know My Name and survivor of high-profile sexual abuse by a fellow student at Stanford University, said in her powerful victim impact statement in court:
…what I truly wanted was for Brock to get it, to understand and admit to his wrongdoing.
Writer Kai Chang Thom, in a thought-provoking piece on why she does not believe our punitive criminal justice system is appropriate for her abusers, put it similarly:
I want to know they understand. I want them to know how I felt under their hands. I want them to choose not to hurt me ever again, which is a better and truer safety.
Research consistently finds that not just sex abuse victims but all types of crime victims prioritize as a top goal steps that lead the offender to not reoffend. The annual U.S. National Crime Victimization Survey found that the top three categorizeable reasons respondents gave for reporting incidents to the police all related to preventing the crime from happening again. The Survey also found that a majority of U.S. crime victims would prefer spending more on prevention and rehabilitation instead of longer prison sentences. Similarly, a U.K. study found that 94% of victims said the most important thing to them was that the offender did not commit the crime again, and 81% said they would prefer an offender to receive a sentence effective at preventing recurrence rather than a harsh one.
Reactions to the Weinstein verdict track these goals of understanding and prevention. Ashley Judd, the first actress to publicly accuse Weinstein of sexual misconduct, stated that her ideal resolution would be a process through which Weinstein “could come emotionally to terms with his wrongs.” Former Miramax assistant Zelda Perkins said, “I hope this is the beginning of judges and juries understanding and taking the nuances of abuses of power more seriously.” Rebecca Solnit, author of a forthcoming memoir about her encounters with silence and violence, wrote:
For myself, I wanted Mr. Weinstein found guilty and imprisoned not as revenge—though he richly deserves it—but as a warning to men like him that the age of impunity is over, that there are people willing to listen to women, and sometimes what we say has consequences. The most important change will be found in what we cannot measure—all the crimes that don’t happen because would-be perpetrators fear the consequences, now that there are consequences. All the potential victims who know that if they speak up, someone might hear them and heed them.
I want more than that, though: I want a society where the desire and entitlement to commit sexual violence wither away, not out of fear, but out of respect for the rights and humanity of victims.
Perkins and Solnit take the idea of the individual offender “getting it” and expand it to judges, juries, and the rest of society, envisioning a broad cultural change in our collective understanding of appropriate sexual conduct and the reduction in sexual violence that would result. Indeed, as Professor Tuerkheimer writes, “#MeToo aims to accomplish much more than sending the worst offenders to prison. The movement’s reach is ambitious—it demands that we transform our culture of male sexual entitlement and the misconduct it begets. But legal accountability is part of this evolution.”
The Weinstein conviction is profound because its symbolism and media prominence may in fact reflect and spur that culture change goal, setting a new standard for what our legal system and society understand as sexual violence. In other words, Weinstein’s conviction may lead more people and institutions to “get it” and, through their greater understanding, change their behavior.
At Lieff Cabraser, we strive to incorporate these goals into our practice. We recognize that all our clients, and especially those who have suffered sexual abuse, often value more than just money; they value recognition, validation, prevention, and cultural and behavioral change by the institutions and individuals responsible for their abuse. That’s why we don’t just work to get our clients fair compensation (although we do that, too)—we also press defendants to demonstrably change in order to prevent future abuse.
(Note: For a discussion of how civil litigation and other alternatives to criminal conviction can achieve victims’ goals, click here.)
Avery Halfon is an attorney at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein who represents victims of sexual abuse and other victims of corporate and institutional misconduct. He seeks to use litigation to pressure corporations and other organizations to change their cultures and set up internal accountability systems to prevent harm.