The proof that sexual abusers in the workplace will finally get their day of reckoning

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The tide is finally turning against sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace, as evidenced by the Weinstein verdict. Ahead of International Women’s Day 2020, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu celebrates the women who brought him to justice, and calls on us all to work together to bring about change.

Long may the names Miriam Haley, Jessica Mann, Annabella Sciorra, Dawn Dunning, Tarale Wulff and Lauren Young live in history and our memories.

At least 100 women accused convicted rapist, Harvey Weinstein, of sexual abuse. But only these six women were brought in for the prosecution case and succeeded in securing a conviction of one count of rape in the third degree, and one count of a criminal sexual act, out of five counts in the New York criminal prosecution against him. Weinstein was cleared of predatory sexual assault and his legal team has said he will appeal his convictions.

What these women did was to stand in the gap for millions of women around the world who have suffered abuse, harassment and rape at the hands of powerful men. They have sent a loud message of ‘yes we can!’ to bringing abusers to justice.

The elation and joy we felt at seeing justice being delivered at the Harvey Weinstein trial is something many of us hoped for but weren’t sure would ever happen. We owe every one of these women our deepest gratitude for their courage in coming forward and putting themselves at risk. 

One of the problems with exposing high profile sexual predators is the power and influence they wield, which has protected them, secured their interests, bought witness silence and obstructed justice for survivors. It potentially puts survivors of abuse at the risk of immeasurable damage to their physical and mental health, as well as their reputation and finances.

Harvey Weinstein verdict: he faces up to 25 years in prison.

This landmark verdict isn’t just much needed justice for survivors of Weinstein’s abuse, but a vindication for the #MeToo movement, which propelled a global outcry against sexual harassment and abuse of women when it went viral just over two years ago. The movement opened the door to a paradigm shift in breaking the global silence around sexual abuse, but Weinstein’s trial reveals that this isn’t enough to break down the systemic institutionalised barriers women abused and harassed in the workplace face when it comes to public and judicial scrutiny.

This trial undoubtedly tried to pull the justice system into the 21st century. However, the journey from reporting the incident, for example at work, then the interviews with police and prosecutors, and finally getting to court is consistently a long one, and it is often disastrous and painful for survivors. This isn’t unique to the Americans, as this experience is exemplified in the UK and many other parts of the world. 

Women are always initially treated with scepticism or outright disbelief, especially when the abuser in question is powerful and influential. Whereas justice demands that the defendant benefits from the principle ‘innocent until proven guilty’, in practice victims, particularly women, are stigmatised as ‘liars until proven innocent’. This is an institutional barrier that must be broken down.

Weinstein trial: Anabella Sciorra was one of those who gave evidence against the disgraced producer.

Harvey Weinstein’s legal team’s whole strategy was to treat the witnesses and victims as serial liars. By casting aspersions on their character, claiming intimacy between Weinstein and his victims, and ultimately reducing them to tears, Weinstein’s legal team sought to discredit them. 

For instance, Donna Rotunno, Weinstein’s lead counsel, accused Soprano actor Annabella Sciorra of being such a good actress that she could convince an audience of being whatever character she wanted to be. One by one, as these six women gave their testimonies, the cross-examinations were so brutal they were reduced to tears. Even more shocking, but exemplifying the stigmatisation of survivors of abuse, Weinstein’s victims were pointedly blamed for the abuse. During the trial, it was heavily implied that it was at least partially their fault that they were sexually attacked.

“You were manipulating Mr Weinstein so you’d get invited to fancy parties, correct? You wanted to use his power, correct?” Rotunno said to one of the witnesses.

Survivors of abuse often have complicated relationships with their abusers, and this is almost always used against them – the Weinstein trial serves as further evidence of this. For example, a victim might have an ongoing working or personal relationship with his or her abuser, they might exchange text messages, they might not call the police following abuse, they might accept favours from their abuser, they might pose for smiley selfies together, there might be social media posts of them together at social events, and so on. 

None of this should ever change the fact that the victim was sexually abused, harassed or raped. But the perception wielded is that of victims coming across as willing and consensual parties to the abuse. #MeToo shines a light on this, but not enough to tackle it when it comes to actually rendering justice.

A global approach such as the ILO Convention is vital to ending the institutionalised stigma against survivors of abuse around the world. Women in the workplace, just like Weinstein’s victims, are silenced through fear, decimation of their character and complicated relationships with their abuser. We cannot move closer to achieving a delicate balance of judicial justice and fairness in public scrutiny while the patriarchy wields this unyielding power in institutions and businesses.

Furthermore, within this global approach, institutions must be held accountable. The Weinstein trial must send a strong message to industries and workplaces protecting the abuse of such power and influence that there will be a day of reckoning. This week it is a powerful man being prosecuted and convicted. Next week, it will be a corporation. Just as a business can be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter, one day businesses will be prosecuted for failings resulting in the sexual abuse, harassment and rape of survivors.

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate that the tide is finally turning.

Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu is a Lawyer, Founder of Women in Leadership publication and Political and Women’s Rights Activist. You can visit her website here and follow her on Twitter here

This piece was originally published on 27 February 2020

Images: iStock, Getty

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Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu

Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu is a lawyer, the founder of the Women in Leadership publication, and a political and women’s rights activist. More information on Dr Shola is available at www.drshola.com.