Why there’s no such thing as a perfect victim: What Harvey Weinstein’s trial taught us about sexual assault

Clémence Michallon
Harvey Weinstein arrives for his trial on 14 February 2020 in New York City: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

In the third week of Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial, a woman broke down in tears as she took the witness stand. Her claims that Weinstein raped her in 2013 made up the most serious accusations at the heart of the proceedings.

His lawyer, Donna Rotunno, cross-examined her, bringing up interactions between Weinstein and the woman, which occurred after the alleged attacks.

Why did the woman accept an invitation to a 2015 Oscars party, the defence wanted to know? Why did she agree to meet Weinstein in 2016 inside a hotel room – the same one where he had allegedly raped her three years prior?

Throughout the trial, the defence leaned on warm emails sent by some of the accusers to Weinstein, as part of an effort to sow doubt as to the women’s credibility.

This line of questioning was an expected part of the defence’s strategy. The prosecution had anticipated it, countering it ahead of time with expert testimony from a forensic psychiatrist. Dr Barbara Ziv took the stand and attempted to dispel stereotypes and sexual assault and its aftermath.

Ziv said that most sexual assault survivors remain in touch with their abuser. Victims can end up blaming themselves and are often threatened with retaliation should they speak out, Ziv said.

The question of how victims are expected to behave after being assaulted might look thorny at first glance. Isn’t it counter-intuitive for someone to remain in proximity with someone who has hurt them? But when you ask experts – and survivors themselves – things don’t look as complicated. Behaviour that might appear paradoxical, as it turns out, is not only unexceptional – it’s typical for a vast majority of victims.

“People have significant misconceptions about how people who’ve been sexually assaulted or who have had a traumatic experience should respond in the aftermath,” says Laura Palumbo, the communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a non-profit based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “Oftentimes, it’s informed by what they see on TV or in media or popular culture.”

A “perfect victim” – ie, one who complies with all the misplaced expectations thrust upon survivors of sexual violence – would be expected to report their attack immediately – which is very rare, says Palumbo. Another common misconception is that a victim of sexual assault wouldn’t resume their normal life after the attack – but that is how most survivors end up moving forward.

“They go back to school. They go back to work. They go back home,” says Palumbo. “They’ve had this very traumatic and painful experience but in some ways they’re trying to bring back normality to their life.”

Victims, Palumbo points out, might be dismissive of their own assault, unable to believe that someone they knew violated them. This quest for normality is what typically drives a victim to remain in touch with their abusers. “If you think about it from the survivor’s perspective, they’re actually trying to avoid the full psychological impact of their assault and are actively trying to not draw the fact that something so painful has happened to them,” says Palumbo.

Some might not even realise they’ve been raped or assaulted. Dr Jenna DiLossi, a psychologist and co-founder of the Center for Hope and Health, a facility that specialises in PTSD and sexual assault, points out that assault and rape don’t necessarily match society’s idea of violence, which in turn might impact a victim’s ability to identify and report an attack.

“A grooming process can often happen, and in that process the perpetrator could be very kind and seemingly caring and seemingly looking out for this person’s interest. So that often doesn’t really fit into the mainstream society’s image of who’s committing sexual violence,” she says, adding a little later: “Many victims are assaulted in the absence of what we know to be violence. Sexual assault implies the absence of consent, not necessarily the presence of violence.”

In the event of a traumatic event such as a rape or a sexual assault, a specific part of the brain, the amygdala, is activated, says Dr DiLossi. The amygdala is in charge, among other things, of our fight-or-flight response – meaning that when it’s activated, “we’re often operating from a place of self-protection and fear”. Self-protection, after an assault, can take the form of a desire to avoid public shaming and possible retaliation, so “there’s a number of reasons why a woman might feel incentivised to want to be friendly, put on a happy face and be cordial”.

Victims of assault must also cope with a vicious cycle in which the very effects of the attack might compromise their credibility, should they decide to go to law enforcement or take the stand in a trial.

“We know that, when not processed, sexual assault can then lead to sexual promiscuity, which I would imagine a defence might try to use to discredit somebody who’s reporting the assault,” says Dr DiLossi. “Or it could lead a person to engage in substance use to block the memory out, all of which can then lead to further instability in that person’s life and again make the person appear less credible.”

This is true as well of PTSD, which half of women who have been sexually assaulted experience. “There’s certain parts of [PTSD] that I can think a defense could use to discredit a person,” says Dr DiLossi.

“For example, it’s not uncommon for a memory traumatic memory to be spotty, for [someone] to not remember specific details. A false belief that we tend to have in our society is we think that if something was so important and traumatic in your life, you would remember every single thing about it, but the research actually shows the contrary.” Major elements, such as the identity of the perpetrator, will be remembered, she adds, but a victim might struggle to accurately recall details such as the colour of the assailant’s clothing – which in turn could be used to question their credibility. “If this person has not been treated, the very nature of what PTSD looks like, unfortunately can lead a defence to rip the person apart.”

The writer Jessica Knoll, whose 2015 debut novel was inspired by her own sexual assault, once wrote about going on a date with the person who had abused her – and fearing that it would undermine her decision to speak out years later. “Who would go on a date with her rapist? Let the record show, most of us,” she wrote in a 2017 essay for The Cut. “That I fraternised with my attackers for the remainder of high school and even into college does not make my account suspect, it makes it textbook.”

The jury of seven men and five women will now decide whether he is guilty of raping a woman in 2013, and of performing a forcible sex act on another woman in 2006. He has pleaded not guilty and denied all allegations of non-consensual sex. Weinstein has also denied retaliating against women.

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