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Harvey Weinstein's Lawyer Says She 'Never Put Herself in the Position' to Be Sexually Assaulted

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Before 2017, Harvey Weinstein was known as one of the most successful producers in Hollywood. Since then, he has become the face of the #MeToo movement, with over 80 women coming forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him including sexual harassment, sexual assault and repeated rape. Last month, his trial began in Manhattan where he faces charges of predatory sexual assault, rape, criminal sex act, sex abuse and sexual misconduct.

Last Friday, one of his defense attorneys, Donna Rotunno, was asked in an interview on “The Daily” podcast if she had ever been a victim of sexual assault. She answered, “I have not, because I would never put myself in that position.” She went on to clarify, “I have always made choices from college-age on where I never drank too much. I never went home with someone that I didn’t know. I just never put myself in any vulnerable circumstances ever.”

Donna Rotunno is a defense attorney. It is her duty to represent her client in court, and her role in that regard is important to a fair legal system. Her comments in this interview are in no way part of her job description, in no way necessary and in no way accurate to the reality of sexual assault.

Although she attempted to claim she was not insinuating victims of sexual assault put themselves in that position, that is exactly what she is doing. Her comments are blatantly victim-blaming, filled with myths that are harmful to survivors and anyone who takes in her words as truth. I am here to correct her.

Interestingly, Rotunno specifically cited her “smart choices” to college age. Perhaps she is not aware that 29% of sexual assault victims are aged 12-17, or perhaps her moral compass only allows her to blame survivors for the violence inflicted upon them once they are above the age of 18.

Let’s focus for a moment on her alleged wisdom on how to avoid being raped: “Don’t drink too much, don’t go home with a stranger.” A vast majority of American adults drink alcohol. I want to believe we are past this particular form of victim-blaming as a society, so I find it hard to even formulate a response other than, “Good for you, Donna, that you’ve never been drunk.”

It is worth noting that not a single one of her client’s accusers were sexually assaulted in a situation where they had been drinking excessively, nor did they go home with a stranger. Given the fact that 80% of rapists are not strangers to their victims, at the very least this advice is not extraordinarily pragmatic. It’s almost as if Rotunno chose to cite two circumstances where it is easiest to point out a survivor’s imperfection rather than educating herself on the circumstances under which people are most likely to actually be sexually assaulted.

What makes her comments so damaging is that they play right into the misconceptions that are so often portrayed by the media about what sexual assault looks like. Reality is nuanced. It’s an actress who thinks she’s going to a business meeting with a successful producer, understandably expecting professionalism. It’s the girlfriend who’s gotten so used to her partner’s degradation and humiliation she forgets what a normal relationship is supposed to look and feel like.

It’s a human being and another human being. It’s not an angel and the devil. Victims are under no obligation to have been perfect their entire lives, nor the entire day of their assault or the many years they will spend healing after. It is irresponsible, foolish and cruel to expect otherwise.

I once made a very bad decision, in hindsight. I was on vacation alone. I went to a yoga class. After class, I was talking to several of the other yogis. I told them I was traveling alone. One of them asked if I wanted to get a smoothie together, and I said yes because I wanted a smoothie and I didn’t mind having some company. I had no interest in or expectation of a sexual relationship with this man. I got in his car. He drove me to a juice bar. We got smoothies and talked for a while. I got back in his car, and he dropped me off at my hotel. I told him I would try to come to his yoga class before my vacation was over. He did not rape me. He did not try to rape me. I look back at this moment, and I see how vulnerable I made myself, how foolish of a choice it was to get in a car with him, a person who was a stranger to me, who knew I was alone in a place I was not familiar with. I really enjoyed my time with him, and I am glad that my heart was open to the experience that came from these poor decisions. Knowing how it played out, I would do it again.

One time, when I made a decision to hang out alone with someone I thought was my best friend, he raped me. I made many decisions that led to our friendship which led to my vulnerability — in the form of trust — such as joining the marching band, sitting at the same lunch table as him, responding to his text about the English project, believing the things he said, joking around with him, telling him about myself, and the list goes on. At the time, I didn’t know these were bad decisions. I didn’t know I was making myself vulnerable because I did not know that the person I was befriending was a sexual predator. And even if I had known, I still do not know what lengths he would have been willing to go to act on his desire to rape me. If I had known better, if I had been less trusting, if I had never accepted anything less than perfection from him as my friend, I still cannot ensure he wouldn’t have raped me.

Knowing how it played out, I am glad I still make myself vulnerable sometimes rather than closing myself off to the world on some unfounded belief that it will keep me safe from sexual violence in the future. Because I sometimes put myself out there, I found a man who is good, who is going to be my husband. 

It is common for survivors to blame themselves for sexual violence that was inflicted on them, to look in hindsight and focus on the details that make their stories feel more complicated, less black and white. It is common, too, for people who have never been victimized to focus on those details, as Rotunno seems to be doing. This gives us all a sense that we have control over something we do not have control over. This false sense of control — or culpability — makes the world feel safer. 

Rotunno said the burden of safety should rest equally on survivors and perpetrators. She said, “You can’t have it both ways. We can’t … say, you know what, I went out with them, and I went to their home, we were flirting or kissing or whatever, and then say I had no idea that he may want to do this. You just can’t have it both ways.”

Based on this comment, Rotunno seems to think that sexual assault is just surprise sex. She seems to lack a basic understanding that a person can be aware that another may want to have sex without wanting it themselves or conversely that a person can want sex and not force it on an unwilling party. We can have it both ways. We can be sexual people, we can go on dates, we can make out and we can retain our right to go only as far as we are comfortable. 

The fact of the matter is 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men in the U.S. have been victims of rape or attempted rape. None of them were responsible for what happened to them.

Every decision we make leads us to wherever we end up. And if those decisions lead us to the same place where a sexual predator is, it can feel like those once innocuous decisions — having a drink, going on a Tinder date, trusting a friend, going for an audition, etc. — caused us to be vulnerable. But the one thing the stories of all survivors have in common is a person willing to take advantage of them. What puts one of us in a position to be sexually assaulted is the same thing that puts all of us in that position, including Rotunno: living in a world with sexual predators. And blaming and shaming survivors, like Rotunno does with her comments, only further enables predatory behavior.

It is long overdue that we empower and support survivors, that we count our blessings if we have been so lucky as to never have been sexually assaulted, and that we acknowledge the only people responsible for sexual assault are the people who sexually assault others.

Image via Creative Commons/GabboT

Originally published: February 10, 2020
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