When I was 19, I met an older man so handsome and smart I could barely breathe. When friends asked why I’d suddenly become so distracted, I explained the curve of his jaw, or the way he looked at me when asking me about myself. He was, as I saw it, perfect. Until he showed up at my apartment one night and plied me with alcohol. We drank beer after beer while he cracked jokes. When he moved me to the bed, I protested, then laughed, because I trusted him. He insisted, all but carrying me. When unzipped my pants, I protested again. Then he looked down at me and laughed, and so I laughed, too paralyzed to form words.
The next morning, when friends asked me how my night had gone, I laughed again and told them it was the best I’d ever had. I kept up the charade for over a year, when he would show up to my apartment again, or invite me out. If I pretended like everything was fine, nobody would know how powerless and small I felt, especially him. Nobody would know how many nights I sat at the window, wishing I would jump, wishing that someday I’d be strong enough to say no.
It is not wholly unusual that it took me over five years to admit I’d been sexually assaulted. Despite living and reporting through the bulk of MeToo, I hadn’t reckoned with the overwhelming shame and powerlessness I’d felt. Or the fear that, were I to speak it out loud, I’d have to endure the accusations that I should have never accepted the first drink, or that I should have never seen him afterward, or that I should have spoken up sooner. What would my parents think of me? The friends I’d lied to for so long? And legally, there was certainly nothing I could do to explain to lawyers or police the text messages and post-rape visits.
During Harvey Weinstein’s ongoing trial, his lawyer Donna Rottuno plucked those same fears out from the minds of countless sexual assault survivors. In an interview with New York Times reporter Megan Twohey, Rotunno claimed she had never been assaulted because “I would never put myself in that position.” In this imagined hierarchy of women, Rotunno sees herself as a strong and empowered lawyer, too smart to accept drinks from men or enter their hotel rooms. In contrast, Weinstein’s accusers aren’t nearly as smart; they’re too weak to fight off sexual predators, too weak to defend themselves in court, too weak to tell the truth. It’s a classic legal strategy that victims alleging sexual assault have been at the mercy of time and time and time again.
In this worldview, women are victimized only because they are not smart or careful or strong enough to defend themselves. (Or are attacked late at night by hooded, mysterious strangers.) When pressed on the issue by Twohey, Rotunno claimed that the blame should “rest equally.” Men should be held accountable for forcing themselves on women but women must also accept the blame for not being careful enough, or purposeful enough in their intentions, or stronger. At its core is the suggestion that even if her client is the sort of monster that would prey on women, those women should have known better when they entered a room with a man as powerful as Weinstein.
On February 10, the broader strategy behind Rotunno’s defense became clear. Page Six reports that actress Talita Maia, testifying on behalf of Weinstein, claimed that accuser Jessica Mann was friendly with Weinstein and never seemed distressed. Maia remembered Mann telling her that Weinstein gave her “the best orgasm I ever had” and called him her “spiritual soulmate.”
Of course, this testimony was made to support Rotunno’s defense. Not only are Weinstein’s accusers to blame for not better asserting their boundaries, but they’re also opportunists who have purposefully misconstrued consensual sexual encounters for personal gain. Here, the alleged victims are the real predators, while Weinstein is a man made weak and frail by their attacks. Weinstein has physically been transformed into a man who can barely make it a few steps without his walker. He is burdened by the weight of the injustice against him.
According to his legal team, Weinstein needs that walker; that a laminectomy—a corrective spinal surgery—has rendered him unable to walk without its assistance for months. Despite critics and prosecutors who claim otherwise, Rotunno is smart enough to not claim the walker is a legal strategy. But beyond its practical use, the walker is helpful in gauging who is and isn’t allowed to be a victim in American courtrooms. The Hollywood executive, parading through the hallways of the New York City Supreme Court, grasps to a walker with sad, yellow tennis balls attached to its legs, projecting his smallness and frailty to the jury. The accusers on the stand, in contrast, are conniving, latching onto a cultural movement that has, the narrative goes, gone “too far.”
In this context, Weinstein’s defense strategy relies on a sweeping misclassification about what “authentic” reactions from rape victims look like. Rape victims are supposed to be obviously traumatized; they are supposed to process their trauma in identical and easily processed ways.
That is why I lied to everyone I knew about that older man. I even lied to myself, adamant that I would never feel the way I did when he rolled over from on top of me and laughed. Telling my friends that it was the best sex I’d ever had didn’t change the fact that, after what felt like an eternity protesting his advances, he did whatever he wanted with me. Letting him back into my apartment didn’t change that either.
Weinstein and Rotunno suggest this is weakness. But it’s not. I am not weak, and neither are the many women who have testified against Weinstein. Were they weak, the once-powerful Hollywood exec wouldn’t be limping into court with a walker, performing his frailty and defending himself against the accusations of more than 80 women. But don’t tell that to Donna Rotunno. Her defense relies on a New York jury believing the opposite.