what rape culture can’t do: harvey weinstein and accountability

First of all, fuck Harvey Weinstein and all the people who have protected him. And let’s just say fuck you to all rapists, abusers, and harassers for good measure. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s not be surprised that a powerful white man used his position of power to deeply harm other people. That is exactly what we should expect. However, as a Liberal, Harvey Weinstein has to care what feminists and feminist-adjacent people think about him being a shitty, violent misogynist. So he issued a statement on October 5, in which he apologized for the pain he’s caused without specifying what pain he was talking about, made a weak excuse about how he came of age in a different time in which this was acceptable, and said he was getting help from therapists and lawyers. He ends by talking about how he is on the path to setting up a scholarship for women directors at the University of Southern California, and how he will name it after his mom. It is not totally clear why he felt compelled to add that into an apology. Does he think that giving some women money means he doesn’t have to feel guilty for hurting others?

Then on October 10, his spokeswoman (QuiT, GIRLLLLL) said, “Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances.” This across-the-board denial of wrongdoing is pretty much par for the course, but it’s also very confusing (and utterly enraging, if you are easily wound up like I am). 5 days earlier, he said he was sorry for pain he’s caused right after his many sexual harassment settlements came to light and people started paying attention to his sexual violence. What other pain could he possibly have been referencing? How is he going to do right by the people he hurt (which he said on October 5) when, 5 days later, he says he never did anything wrong in the first place?

In my senior year of college, a fellow student made an anonymous Gmail account and emailed about a quarter of the student body a list of people who had been respondants (which is like a defendant in a school misconduct proceeding aka potential wrongdoer) in Title IX violation cases, which could be anything from harassing a trans student to raping someone. One of the students on this list (let us call him Tom) submitted a written response to a student publication soon after the list was published. In it, he said both that he was unaware of any harm he had caused and that he was sorry for it. Initially, I and many of my fellow feminist students felt that it was a rare example of someone taking responsibility for their actions when they have been accused of sexual violence. However, upon closer reading of his piece, it became clear that it was more of a PR move, filled with hollow words that sounded good in the way only a liberal arts fuck boy really knows how to do. And this interpretation was confirmed the following week, when three women wrote about their experiences with Tom, about being in longterm abusive relationships with him, about being raped by him, about how what he did was so overtly violent there was no way he didn’t know he was doing it. Tom was an accused rapist, trying to maintain a reputation as a good dude, and, ultimately, he was full of shit. Harvey Weinstein’s bizarre apology/denial of wrongdoing combo reminded me of the experience of reading Tom’s piece as he pretended to take responsibility for his actions and then later learning he was really trying to bury things that he knew were wrong.

In the day that between writing the above paragraphs and writing this sentence, another man who claimed to care about survivors of sexual violence was revealed as a perpetrator of it. Ben Affleck tweeted that he was “saddened and angry that a man who I worked with used his position of power to intimidate, sexually harass and manipulate many women over the decades,” and was subsequently reminded that he, too, has used his position of power to exert control over women’s bodies when he groped Hilarie Burton, an actress, on defunct television show Total Request Live and Annamarie Tendler at a Golden Globes party in 2014. Ben Affleck is just one more example of a progressive dude who for some reason can’t understand that other people’s bodies are not objects for him to enjoy. This pattern is exhausting and disgusting.

But, in some ways, why should these men understand what they’ve done? Chances are, very few people have called them out on it, despite the fact that many people knew what happened. It is absolutely imperative that we start treating sexual violence as unacceptable. Part of that is saying sexual violence is unacceptable to those who have perpetrated it. As a culture, we are really bad at this. We don’t like to recognize the horrible things people do because we live in a culture of disposability. Much like we victim blame because we don’t like to imagine that a horrible thing that happened to someone else could happen to us, we also don’t like to imagine that a “regular” guy, who is fully human, can be a rapist or an abuser, because that means anyone we know can be a rapist or an abuser. In this culture of disposability, we cannot imagine a form of justice that does not involve the transformation of a human being into a nonperson. To us, justice means damnation.

For example, accountability for someone accused of sexual violence pretty much looks like that person’s life being ruined. And, frankly, a rapist being publicly shamed, fired, and/or stonewalled doesn’t bother me on behalf of the rapist. But we don’t usually even get that. Plus, that’s not really accountability. Even if a rapist faces the worst possible legal and social consequences for their actions, they don’t have to put in the real work of facing up to the most vile parts of themselves and changing. They don’t have to promise, in front of their loved ones and community and survivors, that they will never do this again. They don’t have to make amends. They don’t have to own their actions. They don’t have to listen to survivors. They don’t usually get prosecuted or convicted. They can deny, they can victim blame, they can tell themselves lies, and, usually, they can find plenty of other people who are willing to support them in that. Harvey Weinstein, Ben Affleck, and Tom prove that it’s possible to delude themselves into thinking they never raped, assaulted, harassed, or abused anyone. That’s not okay.

I commend the people who are working to use the few tools we have to get some justice against people who rape, harass, and abuse. Critiques of our justice system and of those shitty tools are not critiques of the people, mostly women, femmes, and feminine-of-center folks, doing the work to support survivors and find justice. But we need better justice. We shouldn’t depend on marginalized folks to do all the work of holding privileged people accountable for their actions. Restorative and transformative justice offer alternative theories of harm and accountability that could be instrumental in shifting a culture of disposability and individualism to one of accountability and community. For now, we should expose, condemn, shame, ostracize, fine, prosecute. Sexual violence is unacceptable, and it should be treated as such. But part of dreaming of a world without sexual violence is dreaming of better ways to address harm.

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