Harvey Weinstein: Did his victims have a duty to speak out? No.

Harvey Weinstein is now thought to be a grade-A A-hole, thanks to the many women who have spoken out exposing his abhorrent behaviour. Any sane person can agree that someone who uses their power to force or coerce others into unwanted sexual encounters has failed in their most basic of human duties. Yet, this isn’t the end of the story. Some are now asking: why didn’t his victims speak out earlier? And, on the back of this kind of thought, they extrapolate to produce an emerging rhetoric: these women have failed in their own duty to protect others from Harvey Weinstein.

The logic here is: if Weinstein’s victims had spoken out earlier – to the police, press, or others with influence – then perhaps his unacceptable behaviours could have been stopped. Some go further, some think that because they could have prevented Weinstein by testifying, then these victims should certainly have done so: that they have a duty to speak out. By extension, if they have not spoken out then they have failed in one of their moral duties.

You might immediately reject this line of reasoning as missing the point. Weinstein is the boogeyman here, and it’s simple misogyny to flip it so women have to be their own saviours from sexual predators (once again); much in the same way that we reject the notion that women wearing short skirts causes rape, instead of the culprit obviously being people who are rapists. And I agree, but I think there is something deeper and, dare I say it, more interesting at play here when we consider the nature of victimhood and duties.

Let’s go back to the realities of the Weinstein case. Weinstein is a powerful man – he commanded enormous influence in the film (and fashion) industry. Indeed, Rosanna Arquette believes her acting career suffered because she rebuffed Weinstein. So it’s not a stretch to believe that it is costly for women to speak out against Weinstein: they might never become successful if they are effectively blacklisted by a Hollywood mogul, or their preexisting careers might fade into obscurity for the same reason. Furthermore, let us not forget that testifying to being sexually assaulted, violated, or coerced is not easy – even without the very real threat of losing your career, speaking out is in and of itself difficult, costly, often harrowing. Already beginning to crumble is the rhetoric of selfish women refusing to speak out because they glibly want to be film stars.

Another very real factor to consider in the Weinstein case is: even when women testify about being victimised, they are often not believed. Regarding Weinstein we can look to the testimony of Rose McGowan – in 2015 and 2016 she alluded to an influential studio executive who was a notorious sexual predator. She has now claimed Weinstein raped her in 1997. McGowan went on to write that:

A (female) criminal attorney said because I’d done a sex scene in a film I would never win against the studio head.

And even when victims are to an extent believed, perpetrators sometimes get away with it. Recently, director of public prosecution Alison Saunders reminded us that acquittal of someone accused of rape does not necessarily mean that the defendant is innocent of rape. Moreover, for a variety of reasons many reported rapes do not make it to court.

So we see that not only is testifying often extremely costly to the testifier, but the cost may not even carry with it a high probability of a successful payoff. It just doesn’t seem worth it. Therefore, victims, like those women assaulted and coerced by Weinstein, can be forgiven for their non-performance of the duty to speak out and prevent harms to others. Right?

While I agree there are high costs to testifying – and often very low success rates for preventing harms even when women do speak out – in investigating further we find that this isn’t a case of, given these reasons, then forgiving the victims for their non-performance of a duty to testify. In fact we find that no such duty exists. I come to this conclusion from simple intuition (I admit): it seems crazy to me that I can be burdened with a duty which is highly costly for me to fulfil (e.g. to testify) through no fault of my own, and it is an especially crazy notion when that incidence which has supposedly created the duty is something really terrible (e.g. sexual assault).* This rejection of the duty to testify only covers victims and those for whom it would be very costly to speak out – not those who knew of Weinstein’s wrongful actions but for whom it would not have been very costly to speak out (for example, if they were also in powerful positions), and, of course, not those who aided or covered up his actions.

Some might argue that victims always have a duty to testify they have been victimised (in whatever way: a robbery, a fraud, an assault, and so on), it’s just that we forgive these people when they don’t perform this duty, as we recognise how costly it may be for them. I don’t buy into this line of reasoning. This leaves the same taste in my mouth as victim blaming does, and suggests that through no fault of your own your moral character can be tarnished – by having the stain of not fulfilling some duty attached to yourself, even if you are retroactively ‘forgiven’ for your failure.

All in all, the reason Weinstein’s victims did not and do not have a duty to testify on his abhorrent behaviour is primarily because no such duty exists.** I argue that by the nature of victimhood no duty springs into existence. However, we should still keep in mind that in cases like Weinstein’s, it is particularly costly to testify – both because of the nature of the victimisation (sexual assault and coercion) and because of the powerful nature of Weinstein himself. Together, we then find that because there is no such duty to testify, these women who speak out have gone above and beyond. In fancy terms they have committed a supererogatory act: more than is required of them by morality. And so, just as when anyone goes above and beyond the call of duty, they should be praised. Highly and sincerely praised.

There’s so much more to be said here, and I have only scratched the craggy-faced surface of the wider issue Weinstein epitomises. Women’s voices are systematically ignored and devalued. Women are socialised to expect unwanted sexual advances. By many men women are viewed as objects to be consumed…

I’ve only highlight a little piece of the picture: the piece that shows these women who testify against powerful sexual predators have done something they had no duty to do. We should thank the women who have spoken out and will go on to speak out exposing the abhorrent, gendered ways they have been victimised by Harvey Weinstein. But we should not then admonish those who choose to not speak out, or choose to speak out in their own time. Hopefully the testimony of those who have spoken out has not been given in vein and Weinstein, and perhaps even others of his repugnant ilk, will get what’s coming to them (although I won’t hold my breath).

[Featured image cc: @rosemcgowan on Twitter]

* This second criterion is important. Consider a case where this doesn’t apply: I win the lottery. Some might argue that, even though this windfall I received through no fault or responsibility attributable to me, I nevertheless now have more duties than I previously did. We don’t baulk at the idea I have to pay higher taxes at great cost to myself. The precise reason for the difference in intuition I have here, compared with the Weinstein case, is that the duty has been generated by something good which has happened to me, not something bad.

** Perhaps in a world where testifying is somehow not costly – both in terms of testifying  in and of itself (imagine there is a pill to ease all pain of testifying you have been raped) and in terms of the proceeding outcomes of testifying (where women are believed, where people cannot buy off others with their influence, and so on) – we might be more inclined to think there is some duty to testify. This line of reasoning does to some extent appeal. But I remain convinced that it is a bit barmy to think that I can be lumbered with more duties just because of some bad thing that happened to me. In that world it would be the case that I can wake up, be raped, and then I’ve been raped and I now have this moral duty, which I didn’t have when I got up that day.

The importance of this change in cost though might come into force when we consider those who witness wrongdoing but are not victims – i.e. we might think that while witnesses for whom it would be very costly to testify/speak out do not have a duty to do so, whereas those for whom it would not be very costly (e.g. those themselves in positions of power) do have this duty.

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