Harvey Weinstein’s attorney, Donna Rotunno, has defended men in more than 40 sexual misconduct cases. She readily admits that her success is due in part to the fact that when men accused of rape face a jury, they need a woman standing in front of them, insisting that most men are falsely accused good guys and accusers are either liars or women who need to own up to their parts in their own rapes or both. Rotunno is a female friend for hire who can plainly say what men are thinking, advocating for juries to use “common sense”—a shorthand for a kind of vintage sexism that still wins rape trials, but only when a woman does it.
In her closing arguments for Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial, where he stands accused of bullying and coercing two women into hotel rooms for work-related reasons and then allegedly raping them, Rotunno urged the jury not to become “emotional” by these women’s accounts:
“During deliberation, I’m going to ask you to use your New York City common sense…and every time you feel your emotion taking over,” she said, “remember that common sense, because it will guide you.”
Pitting masculine logic over feminine emotion is such an old tactic for dismissing women that it’s basically rape trial cliché at this point, but painting accusers as irrational women is one of Rotunno’s main defense strategies both in and out of court. On the New York Times podcast, Rotunno blamed women for their own rapes by saying victims refuse to take responsibility for their part in sexual assaults. In the courtroom, she trotted out similar arguments, hoping to provoke outrage at women who imagine themselves as victims when they’ve actually orchestrated their own rapes by virtue of having been present for them.
“In their universe, women are not responsible for the parties they attend, the men they flirt with, the hotel room invitations, the plane tickets they expect, the jobs they hope to obtain,” said Rotunno. “In this universe, they aren’t even responsible for sitting at their computers and emailing someone across the country.”
In the Times interview, Rotunno said she’s never been sexually assaulted because she “would never put [herself] in that position.” Her line of thinking is clear: women lie about being raped, and even if they aren’t lying, they should still assume half the blame for the rape for putting themselves in positions where men might rape them. It’s a kind of victim-blaming sexism that’s so old one nearly expects Rotunno to pull out a mini skirt and present it to the jury as evidence, asking How could someone be raped if she was wearing this? Because that’s essentially what Rotunno is asking: How could these women be raped if they met with their bosses in hotel rooms, expected their employer to provide plane tickets, sent emails, worried about keeping their careers despite having been assaulted? In Rotunno’s arguments, rape is never entangled in complicated power structures and feelings of self-loathing inspired by the old “asking for it narrative that often causes victims of sexual assault to behave in ways that seem “illogical” to people like Rotunno.
Her arguments are the same ones that prompt police to ask victims if they didn’t just change their minds, and judges to worry about what jail sentences will do to rapists’ lives with no concern for what the rape did to the victim’s life. However, Rotunno acknowledges a kind of privilege in being allowed to speak these ideas out loud. In a 2018 interview, Rotunno expressed the belief that male lawyers would look like bullies if they cross-examined victims to the point of incoherent sobbing or preached a narrative of personal responsibility in rape prevention. “If I do it, nobody even bats an eyelash. And it’s been very effective.”
Rotunno wins cases because victim-blaming is still present and insidious in nearly all the ways we talk about, investigate, and prosecute rape, though these ideas have generally become more coded in polite conversation. Rotunno is just a well-compensated mouthpiece for speaking them out loud.