Why even a win in sexual assault cases can still feel like defeat

I never thought I’d see the day when Harvey Weinstein would be sentenced to 23 years in prison after being convicted of sex crimes.

Even expert attorneys who were following his trial and the reporters who broke the story on the allegations against the defamed Hollywood producer that helped bring such mainstream attention to the Me Too movement didn’t expect a conviction let alone such an astonishing sentence.

But against all odds, both societal and legal, those who believed his accusers got what we asked for: justice. A New York jury made up of predominantly men listened to the stories of six women (many of whom do not fit the  “perfect victim” myth) and believed what they had to say. The trial focused on only two of the women’s cases, but the others were also called to share their testimony.

Despite the best defense lawyers money and power can buy and a general atmosphere of Me Too backlash, the jurors found Weinstein guilty of criminal sexual acts in the first degree and rape in the third degree last month. On Wednesday, a New York state supreme court judge sentenced him to 23 years behind bars. He could’ve gotten just five or up to 29.

Why does his conviction leave me with a feeling of emptiness?

This historic win defies centuries of patriarchal power structures, signals a social change radical enough to affect the legal system, and comes full circle on the man who embodies the injustices of institutionalized sexual predation.

So…why does his conviction and sentencing leave me with a feeling of emptiness?

I’m far from the only one, either. But still, it still feels wrong, this dissatisfaction with what is (again) unequivocally a landmark victory in sexual assault convictions. The monumental impact of his survivors’ strength, who delivered excruciating testimonies and withstood the cruelties of the courtroom and the public with no promise of fairness, can’t be overstated. Their courage not only secured justice for his countless other accusers but set a new precedent for future survivors seeking legal retribution. The solace I hope this verdict brings them — this validation that their pain is real, that change is possible, that fighting matters — stirs the feelings of uncomplicated triumph that I always expected from a Weinstein conviction.

But processing sexual assault, particularly on a cultural scale, is never uncomplicated. And we need to give ourselves permission to experience, without shame, the full scope of emotions that comes with this victory. 

It’s hard to even precisely articulate this sensation of emptiness, or where it comes from. Dissatisfaction is too mild and petulant a word. Apathy, cynicism, or even disassociation doesn’t capture the taste of fear in my mouth, the pit of anxiety despite this best-case scenario. His lawyers have already vowed to appeal the sentencing as early as July. There’s another, as yet unscheduled, sexual assault trial still to come in Los Angeles. Who knows what will happen there.

Throughout every stage of Me Too, survivors have struggled to find the right words, definitions, and tone to give proper voice to the wrongs we were made to endure in silence. When language, social structures, and legal systems are built around the presumption of your silence and acceptance of these wrongdoings as the norm, then they all inevitably fail to meet your needs in dismantling those norms by breaking that silence.

We were so accustomed to coping with the powerlessness and anger of a non-guilty verdict or light sentencing that we didn’t even dare let ourselves imagine what a different outcome would feel like. Now we’re here. And rapists so often don’t go to prison for their crimes that the language to communicate what we’re experiencing doesn’t really exist yet.

I know one thing, though: This doesn’t feel like victory as I imagined it.

Maybe my ambivalence comes from what we saw happen prior to Weinstein’s conviction, when a bar full of people cheered his presence at a comedy club before throwing out the female comic and survivor of assault who called him out. Or maybe it’s because we know a not-insignificant number of people agree with Weinstein who, speaking of his victims during the trial, said that, “I had wonderful times with these people. I’m just genuinely confused. Men are confused about this issue… I’m worried about this country, lots of men like myself are.” After his conviction, Weinstein maintained he was innocent.

Maybe it’s impossible for me to trust that any sexual assault conviction will stick when a lifetime has taught me to expect the other shoe to drop, to wait for him to get off on a technicality, or be released early on good behavior, or to hear reports of his plushy circumstances in prison. 

Even if none of that happens, Weinstein — no matter how significant he is as a symbol and how meaningful this is to his many victims —  is still only one man. I can’t help but worry about all the other predators who don’t get reported, who won’t see their day in court, who don’t have the entire world’s eyes on them to ensure that justice is served. 

Critics of the Me Too movement will undoubtedly be outraged to hear of any dissatisfaction with his conviction. Ambivalence will be met with cries of “It’ll never be enough!” and accusations that we won’t stop until there are hangings in the street. It should go without saying, but that’s not it either. 

Weinstein’s suffering was never the goal nor the prize. His experience is last on my list of concerns.

Despite what these critics believe, there is little vindictive pleasure to be found in Weinstein’s conviction. Weinstein’s suffering was never the goal nor the prize. His experience is last on my list of concerns even when he’s being rightfully punished.

When this all began, we asked for legal justice because that was the concrete answer we could give those demanding we give a solution to the problems we didn’t create and had only just started to articulate for ourselves. Now we got it. A known predator will be taken off the streets for a good amount of time. It is devastating to realize that it doesn’t heal the wounds assault leaves behind. It doesn’t give us back what we have lost. It is not a promise that it won’t keep happening everywhere all the time. It doesn’t make our immediate world feel any safer. 

So what do we do now? This is the against-all-odds, gruelingly hard-fought victory we never expected to be able to celebrate. 

But it’s hard to feel celebratory. When it comes to sexual assault, even progress feels like a reminder of just how far we have left to go.

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