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No Justice for Harvey Weinstein’s Victims

A long prison sentence can’t repair the harm he caused for dozens of women over many decades. What would it look like to demand more?

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Harvey Weinstein is far from the only person who felt a sudden pain in his chest upon being convicted of a felony in Manhattan’s criminal court. Shortly after the verdict in his sexual assault case was handed down late last month, the former producer, after complaining of this symptom, was admitted to a Manhattan hospital. In the days that followed, the tabloids recounted Weinstein’s time in a hospital prison ward with a mix of bloodlust and faux-naïveté: He’s eating hospital food, not jail food; he’s watching television, “lounging.” Running in parallel to these stories were quotes from anonymous sources and his own legal team emphasizing that he’s being treated like any other person imprisoned in the same unit. (“He didn’t ask to go there,” one of Weinstein’s lawyers told The Hollywood Reporter. “None of his lawyers asked for him to go there.”) In all of this narrative-setting, there’s a kind of carceral voyeurism at play, and an unspoken acknowledgment of the realities of our class- and race-based prison system. 

This type of morbid speculation will likely only intensify after Weinstein’s Wednesday sentencing hearing, where he faces a possible five to 29 years in prison. For some, it will be the definitive word on the case—a concrete response to the many still-unresolved questions about accountability left by the verdict. But for many feminist activists, including those whose activism was propelled by what’s been shorthanded as the #MeToo movement, a carceral response to violence does not deliver justice. Because what condition of Weinstein’s incarceration—after decades of abuse and success, each enabled equally by those around him—would be equivalent to robbing a woman of her livelihood and sense of safety? Of multiple women, over several decades? How many years in a prison cell does accountability for that kind of harm require? 

This is a different way of asking: What do we do with rapists? “What are we doing with them now?” organizer and educator Mariame Kaba answered rhetorically, in a recent interview with MSNBC host Chris Hayes. “They live everywhere. They’re in your community, they’re on TV being outed every single day.… You think that that system is doing a deterrent thing that it’s actually not doing.” Jailing rapists won’t repair harm, and it doesn’t work to prevent rape, either.  

Feminist prison abolitionists have been working for decades to challenge the idea that criminalization interrupts gender-based violence. Scholars and activists like Beth Richie, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Angela Y. Davis demonstrate how prisons are themselves sites of racialized violence and sexual violence. This system doesn’t take sexual violence seriously because it runs on sexual violence. It may have finally caught up with Harvey Weinstein, but it is not built to respond to the varied and many ways survivors of sexual violence may seek accountability from those who have harmed them: to have them fully recognize and name the harm; apologize, privately or publicly; and take on the necessary and often long-lasting work of making amends. Instead, deprivation of liberty is its only tool.

For all these reasons, as Kaba’s maxim goes, “Prison is not feminist.” Weinstein’s future incarceration, on these same terms, shouldn’t be mistaken for some kind of feminist victory. 

Some of the women who spoke out about Weinstein’s predatory behavior drew out the tensions between the legal case against him and the harm that the case could still never repair. “He’s having panic attacks? Welcome to the club,” Rose McGowan told The Guardian after the news of the verdict. “Nightmares? Welcome to the club. He did this. I know that, because I was there.” Sharing a Reuters story of a “stir crazy” Weinstein in Bellevue, Rosanna Arquette commented, “Yes this is what rape survivors filled with horror and trauma have felt like for years. It’s not a good place to be. [A]cknowledge it.”

When she rejected Weinstein in his hotel room in the early 1990s, Arquette has said he reacted by trying to force her hand onto his erect penis. She left the room. “Got down the elevator. By the time I got to the bottom, the lobby, I had a completely different career,” she told All Things Considered in 2018. “All of us have lost work,” Arquette said of the other women who had come forward. “You have the most powerful businesspeople in the world protecting [Weinstein] for years.” 

There is no length of prison sentence that turns that clock back, or restores to these women untold losses in income. This becomes particularly relevant when considering that not all of Weinstein’s victims were well-compensated actresses. That’s why, according to many anti-violence advocates, accountability should extend to address those economic harms, too—something that, with so much focus on the trauma of sexual violence, is often overlooked. In an interview with Jezebel, Alisa Bierria, founder of the Feminist Anti-Carceral Policy & Research Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, and member of Survived and Punished, described that type of amends-making as “repair in the form of an actual reparation.” The payments aren’t meant “to buy yourself out,” she explained, “but it’s to redistribute wealth in a context where we acknowledge that a wrong was done that has had an economic consequence.”

While the question of what punishment Weinstein “deserves” won’t be resolved with his sentencing this week, perhaps it can still disrupt the idea that punishment—or punishment alone—is how survivors define “justice.” Rose McGowan, when asked about her own vision of justice by Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker, focused on ending Weinstein’s predation, not the specifics of his sentence: “Justice to me, it’s the stopping of him being able to do what he wants to do. What he wants to do is make money, be famous, and rape. So that’s some justice, yes.”

Farrow asked something that the carceral system does not: What do survivors want? Their exclusion from the criminal legal process is built in; it is the prosecutor who brings charges in a rape case, “the people”—the state—being the injured party. After the verdict came down, Kenyan playwright and activist Shailja Patel offered the kind of sentiment prosecutors rarely, if ever, make in public: “No guilty verdict or jail sentence, even for life, can restore what Harvey Weinstein stole from his victims. Or repair the harm he inflicted in his decades-long reign of terror over an entire industry. But this is a tiny crack in the wall of impunity. Let patriarchy tremble.” 

It may be too difficult to imagine an alternative to prison in this moment, to ask what restorative justice—an accountability practice dependent on mutual consent and existing relationships, playing out on a community level—would look like in Hollywood. But we get closer to an answer if we can accept that while some women may want men like Weinstein to spend the rest of their life in a cell, there’s no prison sentence that could deliver what they need.