On Wednesday morning, sexual assault survivors all over the world sighed a breath of relief after a Manhattan judge declared that former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein — convicted of rape and a forcible sexual act — would be sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Inside the Manhattan courtroom, the group of six women who accused Weinstein of assault and testified during the months-long trial — Miriam Haley, Jessica Mann, Annabella Sciorra, Dawn Dunning, Tarale Wulff, and Lauren Young — embraced one another in tears as they heard that Weinstein would be behind bars for close to the maximum possible sentence. And on the opposite coast, mornings were punctuated by the ping-ping-ping of notifications from survivor group texts containing all-caps messages expressing joy and victory.
“I had just got out of the shower and I was like, ‘What the heck?’” Weinstein silence breaker Louise Godbold told TheWrap in Los Angeles, where she was in the midst of hosting an annual conference for Echo, an organization that specializes in education about trauma and empowering survivors. “I was pleasantly surprised that he got 23 years because, first of all, he deserved every single one of those years.”
Before Wednesday, accusers said they were anxiously awaiting the sentencing decision: Would Weinstein be allowed to spend the minimum sentence of five years in prison, as his attorneys had requested, because he was a first-time offender and because of his poor health? Or would the judge take into consideration the numerous accusations against Weinstein when determining the producer’s sentencing?
To many accusers’ relief, the judge did the latter.
“I will say, although this is a first conviction, it is not a first offense,” Justice James Burke said in his 15th-floor courtroom.
For actress and Voices in Action co-founder Caitlin Dulany, who said Weinstein had sexually assaulted her in the winter of 1996, the near “symmetry” of the sentencing length and the years since her assault was not lost on her.
“Harvey Weinstein will probably — will spend the rest of his life in [prison],” Dulany said, before pausing. “It’s heavy but just.”
“There’s this idea how difficult it is to see justice for sexual assault victims, particularly of a powerful man like him. So anything less would have felt a little bit like his influence and power had played a part in it,” Dulany continued. “It’s really a new day for survivors of sexual assault. … It’s a new reality and a new world. And we all did this by speaking out.”
Weinstein’s sentencing, in many ways, is the end of a long chapter for the more than 100 women who have come forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual assault, harassment and other forms of misconduct.
“Knowing that you’ve been sexually assaulted, knowing that so many people have, knowing that there’s nothing that can be done, everyone through the years tells you, ‘I’m sorry that happened but what can you do,’ you feel like [you’re] on one side of it forever, which is the side of defeat,” actress and silence breaker Katherine Kendall told TheWrap. “And now, there’s this new path opened, which is the side of victory. And I feel like people can step over into victory now. A road has been paved.”
Thus, the producer’s sentencing also serves as the beginning of a new chapter and a reminder of all the change that still needs to happen both within Hollywood and outside of it. But the cultural progress that has already begun — evidenced, in part, by how the Manhattan jury convicted Weinstein based on the testimonies of the women and the emergence of laws and workplace policies designed to help protect employees and empower potential victims of sexual harassment — cannot be understated.
And the precedent set by Weinstein’s conviction and sentencing has “changed the game” for survivors of sexual violence and set a new precedent for how victims can seek justice through the law, said Jessica Barth, an actress, Weinstein silence breaker, and co-founder of Voices in Action.
“I feel like not enough of these cases get prosecuted and that the standards that they are held to are unreasonable,” Barth said. “I hope that prosecutors understand that this is a new era and a new day. Juries will convict serial predators and victims are being believed.”
Within the criminal justice system, Godbold — a trauma specialist — said that there is more work to be done to minimize the amount of retraumatization done to survivors of sexual assault who seek justice through the law.
“That is an unavoidable flaw that you probably will have to tell it a couple of times,” Godbold acknowledged. But what can be avoided, she said, is educating investigators and attorneys to be more trauma-informed in the way they do their work — work that she said is already happening in countries like Ireland and Canada.
For example, that education could begin with a better understanding of how the brain processes traumatic events and how the recall of those events is affected by that trauma, Godbold said.
“For the first 72 hours, your stress hormones are in your body, and you’re probably in ‘survival brain.’ And so the higher part of your brain, which includes being able to have chronological memory, it’s not online,” Godbold said. “So not understanding that, defense lawyers have been able to make a lot of, ‘She said this, and then she said that, and she’s changing her story.’ And the truth is that you’re not going to have a good recall — it’s going to be fragmented, at the beginning.”
“Even understanding that would at least allow the sexual assault survivors to feel like they were being believed, rather than being disparaged for an inability to create a coherent timeline,” she added.
In the entertainment industry — and any other industry, for that matter — still remains the mountain of shifting how power is wielded over others and, in some cases, abused to devastating effect.
“This was a man that really worked his entire career to manipulate people, intimidate people, scare people. That was what made him so dangerous,” Lauren Sivan, a reporter and silence breaker who said Weinstein exposed himself to her, told TheWrap. “If he didn’t have the power, if he didn’t run Hollywood, if he wasn’t who he was, I don’t know that he would have been able to rack up as many victims as he did.”
Another Weinstein silence breaker, actress Larissa Gomes, said that bystanders should also feel emboldened to speak up if they witness sexual misconduct taking place and unions should ensure they allow their members to have places to report behavior without fear of retribution. Further, children working in the business who are often the most vulnerable need to be protected from sexual abuse, Gomes added.
Gomes also acknowledged that the “strong message” sent by Weinstein’s sentencing and the broader #MeToo movement might be confusing for some men in the industry.
“I’ve heard some people talking about, ‘How am I supposed to comport myself now? I feel scared that I might say something wrong or do something,’” Gomes said. “Well, it’s quite simple. Everyone just wants to feel safe in their work environment. Treat people with respect, and that’s it.”
“There’s this new path opened, which is the side of victory. And I feel like people can step over into victory now. A road has been paved,” said actress and silence breaker Katherine Kendall
All this is to say that the ripple of the Weinstein story — from when the alleged assaults took place, to when the first stories were broken by the New York Times and the New Yorker, to his criminal trial and verdict, and, now, to his 23-year prison sentence — will likely not still for a long while.
“So many people worked to get this day to happen,” Kendall said. “That’s how change happens, is these little increments, and then it looks like it’s one big change, but it was little things along the way, and I think it’s going to take a lot of people still working at it. And then one day, hopefully, it will be different.”