By Alice Thomson in THE TIMES, 26 February 2020
This is the age of empowerment for women,” the attorney Gloria Allred said when the American jury finally found Harvey Weinstein guilty of two charges, of sexual assault and rape, after more than 100 women said that the Hollywood producer had harassed them.
Even the pussy grabber Donald Trump said that the conviction “was a great victory and sends a very strong message”.
But it’s obviously not a triumph for women. The Weinstein case may have made high-powered abusive predators slightly more nervous — no one would want pictures of them naked shown to a jury — but for women who may already have been traumatised by being forced into sexual acts against their will, going to court is still an appalling ordeal.
Almost all declined in the Weinstein case, citing family and career. The reputations of the six women brave enough to take the stand were trashed as defence lawyers did their best to insist that they were temptresses attempting to snare an innocent mogul.
It’s the same in courtrooms in Britain. Over the past five years the number of rapes reported to the police has risen by 65 per cent in England and Wales to 57,882 last year, but the proportion making it to court has halved and only 3.3 per cent end in a conviction.
Many women going to the police are terrified that they may have to hand over their phones and watch as every flirtatious message is exposed under the new digital strip-search rules to help prevent false accusations. A student who eventually backed down from a case involving another undergraduate told me she was haunted by the explicit sexts she had once sent as a teenager. Yet research by the Ministry of Justice estimated that only 3 per cent of rape cases were perceived to be malicious allegations.
Meanwhile, the number of rape cases in which a male defendant tries to suggest that what took place was embarrassing consensual rough sex has risen tenfold in two decades.
According to the pressure group We Can’t Consent to This, 30 women have been killed in the past ten years in what were claimed to have been violent sex games that went wrong.
No wonder that the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) by celebrities, corporations, charities and universities has exploded in sex cases; it’s easier for women to opt out. But this practice should be outlawed. No one should be able to buy off justice, however talented, wealthy or worthy.
Cases to do with sex and power are often complex. If you watch the mini-series The Loudest Voice, it shows with chilling clarity how easy it would have been for a dominating man like Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, to groom staff and how hard it is for vulnerable, junior women to disentangle themselves from intense, hellish situations.
Rowena Chiu, the former assistant to Weinstein, explained to Newsnight how “having two pairs of tights” helped her to fend off inappropriate moves. When asked why she stayed, she said that she felt like “a slow boiling frog” that was unable to escape.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.6 million women in England and Wales suffered from domestic abuse last year. Women often find it extraordinarily hard to save themselves from abusive personal and work relationships, for myriad reasons, whether emotional or financial, but it doesn’t make them complicit.
It’s not just some celebrities, companies and partners that still seem to treat women as vassals. Women have advanced in many spheres and succeeded on many fronts, campaigning for equal pay and equal opportunities. But in areas such as politics, women are still seen as fair game.
One hundred years after Nancy Astor gave her maiden speech, there are more women MPs in the Labour Party than men. But having interviewed many female politicians over the past 30 years, it’s clear to me that almost all of them are suffering from appalling abuse and death threats online, worse than any bottom-patting that their predecessors — Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams, or Margaret Thatcher — probably endured.
And while young women now know that they can complain about inappropriate behaviour in the office to a usually sympathetic HR department, they are still nervous that their jobs may be on the line.
Meanwhile, teenagers may be more vocal about groping on public transport and safe spaces in the classroom but are caught up in a porn culture in which the brutalisation of women has become normalised.
Increasingly they are expected to sell themselves online in order to attract swipes and many end up in relationships in which they aren’t respected. A third of women under 40 in a poll last year said they had experienced unwanted gagging, choking and spitting during sex.
It’s not just women who should be horrified by this poll, parents should be concerned for both their sons and daughters.
They should be as worried that their girls might not get justice in the courts over sexual abuse as they are that their boys may be wrongly accused.
So while Weinstein has been an astonishing, stomach-churning Hollywood story this isn’t the fairytale ending. There are several more acts to go.