This outpouring could be a turning point. It’s time to name those who have abused us, and treat sexual crimes with the seriousness they deserve
Saturday 14 October 2017
There are many shocks following on from this week’s reports of the sexual violations and rapes allegedly committed by film producer Harvey Weinstein. One shock for me is about the language used by the media to describe them. Almost all early reports referred to victimisation as “sexual harassment”.
Weinstein’s alleged acts involved quid pro quo offers, requests to be watched in the shower and for massages, naked pursuits of targets around couches. Such actions are sexual harassment.
But they are not just harassment. These are criminal acts that, if proved, would lead to jail time — not just fines and wrist-slapping. Language out of a Henry James novel made it sound as if rape was like using the wrong fork: “Mistreatment of women”, “misbehaviour”, “indiscretions”. Or “misconduct”, like a bad orchestra. Reporters used “episode” or the 70s-ish, hot tub-ish, “encounter”.
It’s likely that media lawyers advised reporters to use softer terms. But if you are reporting on a hate crime assault, you don’t inform readers accurately by calling it a “racial encounter”.
Shocking too is how district attorneys have failed to react. The New York Times and New Yorker exposés include reports of many alleged crimes in two jurisdictions: California and New York. I believe that basic information about the laws regarding sex crime and abuse are rarely explained to women, and this perpetuates a situation in which sexual assault is treated as a cultural event — “blurred lines” — when in fact criminal law is clear.
In New York state, any unwanted sexual contact is “sexual abuse”. In California, any unwanted sexual touching is “sexual assault” or “sexual battery” punishable by prison terms of six to 12 months. In both states, coercing someone into sex is sexual assault. Forcing someone to submit to oral sex, as actor and director Asia Argento alleged of Weinstein, is a felony. When someone chases a target around furniture, while he is naked, with exits from the room locked, this is arguably stalking and kidnapping.
When someone exposes himself in a public place such as a restaurant, and masturbates, as Fox reporter Lauren Sivan recounted, it is “public lewdness”, a class B misdemeanour. If “he or she intentionally exposes the private or intimate parts of his or her body in a lewd manner for the purpose of alarming or seriously annoying such person” it is a class A misdemeanour; six months, and usually placement on the registered sex offenders’ list.
Also, these events have widely been discussed as if they are history. But the statute of limitations is still open. In New York, the statute for sexual assault is five years, but there is no statute for rape. You can bring charges until you or your rapist dies. In California, a 2017 law, passed after the Bill Cosby allegations, extended the statute of limitations to — for ever. And to six years for assaults that took place prior to 2017. In the UK, there is no statute of limitations for serious sexual crimes. UK victims can bring charges forever.
Most of these women, in other words, could press charges today, even if their assaults happened years ago.
Ambra Gutierrez, an Italian model, wore a hidden recording device in 2015 to document the fact that an assault had occurred in her previous meeting with Weinstein. In an act of courage, this woman went back into danger. But DA Cyrus Vance’s office did not then pursue the case because, a statement said, it “couldn’t establish intent”. This week, it was reported that, months later, Vance was gifted $10,000 for his reelection campaign — by one of Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers.
Had Weinstein boarded a plane to Switzerland this week, as he was reportedly planning to do, that too might have constituted a crime: obstruction of justice. Resisting arrest. Flight. These are felonies or common law crimes.
But because our power brokers want to keep sexual assault in the realm of the “uncomfortable” or the “disgusting”, rather than the criminal, Weinstein was not told not to leave town. Only on Thursday was it announced that police in New York and London are taking action following the reports. Meanwhile, Weinstein headed to Arizona, to sex rehab, with yoga and equine therapy. But “rehab” is a choice, not a confrontation with the criminal justice system.