Harvey Weinstein's Female Lawyer

(Content warning: sexual assault)

I am an avid listener of the New York Times’ The Daily podcast. It’s what I listen to every weekday morning when I wake up. I think it is really well made and interesting as it covers a wide range of topics (not just politics), and each episode is focused on one story or issue.The host, Michael Barbaro, is great, and sometimes there are guest hosts or reporters (who also work for the NYT) that come onto the podcast for an episode here and there. Recently, on February 7th, I woke up and started listening to The Daily. This particular episode intrigued and affected me more than most. It was an interview with Harvey Weinstein’s female lawyer. There is also a transcript, but I recommend listening. The description of this episode reads: “One of the reporters who broke the story of the Hollywood producer’s alleged abuse speaks with Donna Rotunno, the lawyer behind Mr. Weinstein’s legal strategy.” I began listening. 

Reporter Megan Twohey begins her conversation with lawyer Donna Rotunno, saying “Well, Donna, thank you again for being with us this afternoon. I’ve read that you have represented as many as forty men accused of sexual misconduct. That’s a lot.” She asks her what got her started representing men accused of sexual misconduct, and Donna cites the Duke lacrosse case. If you aren’t familiar, this was a “2006 criminal case in Durham, North Carolina, United States which three members of the Duke University men's lacrosse team were falsely accused of rape” (Wikipedia). Donna says she remembers seeing the case in the media (as it was widely publicized) and thinking: “Wow, here’s this allegation that sticks with you your whole life. I mean, these are life changing circumstances. I think quite often we look to the accusers, and we talk about the effects that these things have on their lives. But we do not look at the effects that these types of allegations and accusations have on the person being accused.” Hearing this, I was already rolling my eyes and bracing for what would come next. I’m sorry, but… actually I’m not sorry, this idea of sympathizing with men accused of rape does not sit well with me. 

Donna goes on to give some examples of how the lives of men accused of sexual assault are ruined: financial status, community reputation, etc. She mentions the toll that this kind of allegation takes on these men, mentally and physically, saying, “I mean, look at Harvey. Look at Harvey physically, from what he looked like when all of this started to what he looks like now. People can talk all they want about walkers and faking it. Physically, it is so apparently obvious what this has done, and the toll this has taken on him.” Megan, bless her heart for not scoffing right then and there, counters this argument that the justice system is too harsh on alleged rapists with evidence she uncovered herself, while reporting on sex crimes in Chicago, that proves the victims are almost always the ones being mistreated by police and prosecutors (shelving rape kits, sitting on DNA evidence, etc.). Donna doesn’t really have a response to this… but she starts talking about how believing victims is problematic. She says, “If we automatically have this notion that we’re supposed to believe all women, or believe all victims, or believe all people that come forward, we are taking out a very large portion of the steps that we should be taking before we get to that notion — that just because someone says something they should be believed.” She also states that she believes the justice system is set up “100%” to favor victims, that police and prosecutors are “afraid to be skeptical” of accusations, and that victims are just automatically believed. This straight-up baffles me. After seeing countless stories of victims who were severely mistreated by our justice system, after having heard the stories of victims whose cases were grossly mishandled, and after seeing this very thing happen to a friend of mine in high school, I simply reject what Donna says about the justice system favoring victims. Just the sheer number of victims who never even report their assaults is evidence enough of the system not being set up to favor victims. The justice system does not make getting justice for sexual assault easy. That is a fallacy, a lie.

Michelle Ding

Interjection: There is a really well-done (in my opinion) show on Netflix called Unbelievable, based on the real-life case of a rape and subsequent fight for justice for the victim (who goes by her middle name, Marie). Basically, the middle-aged, white, male police officers suggest that she is being dishonest and interrogate the victim so viciously that she rescinds her allegations. She actually gets in trouble with the law for “lying,” her life falls apart (because of course it does, because she was brutally attacked), and finally some badass female detectives look into her case and find her attacker. She gets justice, in spite of the system literally working against her in essentially every way. I highly recommend watching it!

Back to The Daily. Megan asks Donna what she thought of the #MeToo movement. She says she’s not anti-#MeToo, but “anti-what happens because of things like #MeToo,” meaning that she thinks people get cancelled or “convicted” before they have a trial, and using words like “damaging” and “detrimental” to describe some of the outcomes of the movement. This leads Megan to ask if Donna considered, in deciding whether to represent him, that there were allegations made about Harvey Weinetein before the #MeToo movement. She did not. She says her role is to represent him in this criminal case, and that there is a difference between a crime and a sin. She says: “you can believe that Harvey Weinstein is a sinner. And you can believe that he did things that you wouldn’t do or you don’t like. But my question here is, does that rise to the level of a crime?” Megan asks what sins are, and Donna says that a sin is treating someone inappropriately… Do with that what you will. Now Megan asks what Donna sees as the “clearest evidence that Harvey Weinstein should not be convicted.” She says a bunch of stuff, none of it very convincing to me, like: “We have communications at the time that I believe prove that they were consensual encounters. I believe the actions of women after the fact prove that they were consensual encounters.” Megan counters this with: “Do you think that sexual violence can take place within otherwise consensual relationships?” Donna says yes, but, “I don’t think that that plays into this case at all.” Hmm… okay. 

Skipping a bit forward, because I just don’t want to write/think about the “reasons” why Harvey Weinstein shouldn’t go to jail, Donna mentions something about choices. Megan catches this and hits her with: “Can you elaborate on that a little bit? I’m trying to understand how that — when you say that women have choices, I’m trying to understand how that does not extend to you saying that women have a choice whether or not to be sexually harassed or sexually assaulted...you seem to be placing all of the responsibility on the woman.” This is the question that really got her going. She said, she actually said: “Megan, no, I’m not putting all of the responsibility on the woman. I’m placing responsibility on the woman. Women cannot be equal if women don’t start taking on equal risk. Women want men to take on all the risk. They want to then put themselves in whatever situation they’re in, and then walk out and say, oh my God, I had no idea that was going to happen to me. You can’t have it both ways.” This was a moment when I actually stopped what I was doing and my jaw dropped. I could not believe what I was listening to. I had to pause the episode and take a minute to calm down after hearing something that truly infuriated me. This kind of rhetoric, saying that women are (even partially) responsible for being sexually assaulted is not okay. Beyond that, this assertion is, once again, a fallacy.

The next shocking statement that Donna makes is this: “We have created a society where women don’t have to take any responsibility for their actions. And we have created a society where if we say believe all women, that means we’re not supposed to question anyone at all. So there is absolutely no risk for a woman to come forward now and make a claim. Zero.” Wow, there’s a lot to unpack here. Firstly, she says that women should be held responsible for “their” actions. I will point out that the actions that responsibility needs to be taken for are not the actions of a woman who gets sexually assaulted, but the actions of the perpetrator of the assault. Since these disgusting people never take responsibility for their actions, it is the job of the American legal/justice system to hold them accountable. This cannot happen unless women come forward about their assaults, which is one of the hardest things to have to do. Donna actually suggests that, in our society today, there is nothing that would keep a woman from coming forward about a sexual assault. In fact, there are many reasons why women do not feel comfortable or safe enough to come forward. There is a great NYT article (as well as a related episode of The Daily called “The Accusation Against Brett Kavanaugh”) which discusses why survivors might not come forward with sexual assault allegations. This article talks about this issue as it relates to the allegations brought against Brett Kavanaugh (which is a whole other subject; equally rant-worthy). Author Shaila Dewan writes of wide-spread misconceptions surrounding sexual assault, including that “the number of false reports is vastly overestimated. Common responses to trauma are often viewed as evidence of unreliability,” and “because many people are not psychologically prepared to accept how common harassment and assault are, experts say, they tend to look for reasons to disbelieve.” Many victims fear retribution, don’t want their families/friends/coworkers to find out, are afraid of the justice system or fear that the police will not help them, that there isn’t enough evidence, and so many other reasons. Each victim’s choice about deciding to come forward and seek justice via the legal system is extremely personal and specific to their circumstances and experiences in the world. How Donna Rotunno can say that there is “zero” risk for women to come forward, I have no idea.

What ensues is a slightly heated exchange regarding the fact that Megan is one of the NYT reporters who broke the Weinstein story and also co-authored a book about the allegations and the women who came forward (called She Said). Then we hear the interview winding down and Megan asks one final question, whether or not Donna has been sexually assaulted. Donna says “I have not,” Megan says “Ok,” Donna says “I have not,” Megan says “Ok,” then Donna says: “Because I would never put myself in that position.” Woah there... Hold up. Megan does a bit of a double take and has to go in on this one. She opens up a new line of questions now, once again regarding the fact that Donna seems to be placing the responsibility on women (other victims) to somehow prevent sexual assault, saying “women should take precautions.” Megan then inquires directly about Donna’s belief regarding who should hold the “burden of safety,” victims or perpetrators? Donna states that it should rest equally on both parties. She says: “I think women need to be very prepared for the circumstances they put themselves in. And I think absolutely women should take on equal risk that men are taking on. And the responsibility should be equal as well.” I’m not sure what kind of “risk” men are allegedly taking on, but regardless, this placement of the burden of safety on potential victims of assault is antiquated and extremely wrong. Asserting or even suggesting that women should “be prepared for the circumstances they put themselves in” is a way of excusing the behavior of rapists and perpetuating the idea of “boys will be boys,” the idea that men cannot control themselves or be held seriously responsible. This is completely misogynistic and so clearly hypocritical. If someone’s house was robbed, you wouldn’t blame them would you? Of course not! You would blame… the person who did the robbing! This toxic mentality of burdening women with trying to protect themselves, alter their behavior, accommodates rapists and implies that sexual assault is a fact of life. The real fact is that the perpetrators of sexual assault are the ones who bear the full burden and responsibility. We must hold rapists accountable, not make excuses for them or blame victims. Victims are never responsible (in any way, shape, or form, ever) for being sexually assaulted.

I am truly perplexed at how people can have this mentality, share the beliefs of Donna Rotunno, especially now. How can a woman believe this? It makes me scared for the future, scared for young girls and for young boys. Are these the lies they are being fed, right now? Are these the ideas they will come to accept? Boys will be boys, so girls must get out of their way. Rape happens, so change your behavior, be terrified, and blame yourself for being victimized. No. No way. That’s not okay with me, and I hope readers of this article feel the same. This is a really important issue, so spreading awareness and the right information about sexual assault (not the myths of the past that some people still seem to believe) is essential to creating societal change. I urge everyone to listen to this podcast, get as angry as I did listening to it, do some research about this issue, and spread the word throughout your circle of influence!