In October 2017, The New York Times and The New Yorker broke a story on the “open secret” that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator. More than eighty women accused him of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse over decades, and it’s since coloured media discourse about power imbalances and sexual assault.
It fuelled the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and led to the toppling of other powerful men who’d used their status in their industries to coerce, cover and conceal sexual misconduct—dubbed by some as the “Weinstein effect”.
Yesterday, a New York jury found him guilty on two counts: rape in the third degree and criminal sexual act in the first degree. It’s a watershed moment, for a couple of reasons. Both the counts he was convicted on were complex relationships, where assault sat beside the continued, seemingly ‘friendly’ contact he had with the victims.
It marks a shift in the way we are asking people to understand assault, that it’s complicated, that there are reasons why people minimise themselves or stay in contact with people who’ve abused them. It’s also a recognition of the way power operates in sexual relationships, that forcing someone to do something they don’t want to doesn’t always look like physical aggression: it can be a veiled suggestion or threatening someone’s career or everyone else around them telling you “that’s just how it is.”
On days like today, it’s more important than ever to remember the bravery of the women who came forward against Weinstein. In a society that still questions, undermines and blames victims, it isn’t an easy thing. Even the act of giving testimony can be extremely distressing and re-traumatising. The adversarial justice system by its nature requires people to relive and retell some of the worst experiences they’ve ever had—and we know the majority of cases actually go unreported.
Dr Janet Hall, a retired clinical psychologist with over forty years of experience told Syrup: “When a victim of sexual assault agrees to testify it takes a huge amount of courage. In remembering and testifying to what happened to them, their feelings are reactivated so that it sometimes feels overwhelmingly real again. The greatest pain is in knowing they had no control and no power to stop their assailant.”
She adds that on top of this, “They also feel the humiliation and embarrassment of their assault in being exposed to the general public. They hate to think others may think it was their fault and they were “asking for it”.”
This re-traumatisation extends even further though: media coverage in itself and the discussions that it generates can also be incredibly uncomfortable for people who’ve experienced sexual assault, abuse or rape. “Survivors have their own memories of misery and powerlessness reactivated,” explains Hall, “They often judge themselves as inadequate for being the prey for the offender. Their internal critic “runs wild” in beating them up for being caught and hurt–physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.”
Hall notes that sometimes, when outcomes are somewhat positive, as with this case, sexual assault survivors can feel “a huge surge of relief and positive endorphins flood, that kicks in and reassures them that justice can be done.”
Again, while accurate stats around abuse rates are difficult to nail down, in Australia it’s estimated one in five women have been sexually assaulted or threatened since age fifteen.
If you are one of them or want to know how to support someone who might be affected during the continuing media coverage until Weinstein’s sentencing, we have compiled a list of methods and practices you can use.
Disengage from overwhelming or upsetting media coverage
Being an engaged and aware human being is important, but so is preserving your energy to take care of yourself. If you find the coverage of this case triggering, try to take a step back from news sites and social media. Be judicious with who you follow and if your work requires you to be Extremely Online, muting certain words and phrases on Twitter can help a lot.
Lean on your trusted support networks
We are social beings, and sharing an emotionally distressing load can make it a lot easier to bear. Hall advocates for “returning to a past therapist who you trust or finding a new one” and to “share your feelings with a trusted friend.” Because of the sensitivity of the issue, it’s worth choosing who you share with carefully—not every friend or therapist is going to be the right person to support you how you need. So with that said:
Seek out personalised help and modes of healing
Jameta Nicole Barlow, a community health psychologist says that this is especially true in the context of women of colour and black women seeking clinical or formal therapy. Oftentimes psychologists and psychiatrists aren’t equipped with the cultural understanding to support victims whose Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) identity colours their traumatic experience.
“People are finding different ways to address healing for themselves and their communities that are non-traditional because they may not have a counsellor that can address their unique issues,” she explains. Whether that’s a diverse women’s circle, finding autonomous therapy spaces, or reconnecting to your body through movement like yoga, walking or running—do whatever you need.
Refresh your coping mechanisms
If you use tools like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), mindfulness, breathing exercises (or any others you’ve learnt from friends or psychs) try to lean back into them and remember how much you have in your toolkit to deal with a period of heightened distress.
There are a bunch of good resources online for refreshing what you probably already know, a good starting point is This Way Up’s pages on CBT and trauma. When you notice yourself getting overwhelmed or panicked because of a trigger, take some immediate steps to self soothe.
Although it can be hard, try to keep on top of your usual eating and exercise routines, Hall says, “physical health boosts mental and emotional health, so keep up with an exercise routine where you can burn up the stress caused by worry.”
How to support others during potentially triggering times
We all want to be there for our friends, and supporting someone can sometimes be as simple as being a good listener.
“Don’t judge and don’t distract them from their painful feelings,” says Hall, “Reassure them you are there for them and always will be.”
Because of the severity of sexual assault traumas though, it’s important not to push anyone to open up more than they’re ready or tell someone that they should feel “better” or relieved as a result of this trial’s outcome.
Be mindful of how you express support and comfort physically, it’s common for people who’ve been assaulted to avoid physical touch, but you also don’t want to make them feel like you’re withdrawing from them because they’re “tarnished.” The best thing to do? Just ask what someone needs and wants.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault and needs support, you can find a list of resources and services by state at Reach Out.
The National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service can be reached on 1800 737 732 and via chat 24 hours a day.