Article by Annika Blau /
ABC News /
February 25, 2020 /
Click here to view original /
With the world watching on, an “untouchable” man was handed a sentence that could see him spend years behind bars, far from the glitz of the Hollywood halls he once ruled.
But as Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape and sexual assault in New York overnight, his lawyer said he took it “like a man”, a jarring reaction to the verdict in a case that has become shorthand for unchecked patriarchal power.
On the other side of the world, journalist and lawyer Lucia Osborne Crowley switched off flight mode as she touched down in Sydney to find her phone flooded with news that triggered tears on the tarmac.
“I am not exaggerating when I say the #MeToo movement changed, maybe even saved, my life,” says Osborne Crowley, who went on to share her story in an essay on ABC News that became a book, I Choose Elena.
“I really believe I never would have told my story publicly, and perhaps not even privately, had it not been for #MeToo.”
As a lawyer, Osborne Crowley was wary of the complexities of sexual assault trials, but she believes “a strong declaration from a court can be the best way to back up a paradigm shift and encourage those who are resisting it to catch up”.
Other women’s advocates were similarly nervous that a not guilty verdict would have been read as a referendum on #MeToo.
Dr Karen O’Connell, a discrimination law expert from the University of Technology Sydney, believes the verdict is important.
“It’s very high-profile and one of the most egregious sets of allegations against anyone in the #MeToo era,” she says.
“There are still a lot of stereotypes about survivors and one of the most pervasive is that women bring false accusations to bring down a powerful man.
“I fear a not guilty verdict would have been read as “the women are lying”.”
Dr Lauren Rosewarne from the University of Melbourne says the verdict “will deliver the message that justice has the capacity to be served.”
Still, she’s cautious not to overestimate the outcome.
“Whether or not this means anything to non-Hollywood victims is hard to say; most victims aren’t famous and most perpetrators don’t get the attention Weinstein received and thus in most cases the impetus and resources don’t exist to escalate such cases to courtrooms.”
It was always larger than this lawsuit
As #MeToo spread worldwide across Twitter in a matter of hours, journalist Tracey Spicer sent out a fateful tweet that would kickstart the movement in Australia.
When her inbox flooded with disclosures, she reached out to other journalists for help.
ABC Investigations’ Lorna Knowles — who had a track record of reporting on sexual violence — was one of them.
“One name kept coming up: Don Burke.”
Knowles worked with a team of investigative journalists to research, fact-check and verify the claims.
“We spoke to several of these women (and) all of them said the #MeToo movement made them feel that if they spoke out, they’d be taken seriously.”
Explosive investigations began to emerge — Don Burke, Geoffrey Rush, Craig McLachlan — but Knowles says that as defamation suits ensued, disclosures dried up.
“They had a chilling effect on women speaking out,” she says.
O’Connell agrees: “The message came loud and clear that it’s a risk to speak up and that was really unfortunate.
“The women who were drawn into defamation cases or threatened with defamation [actress Eryn Norville and ABC reporter Ashleigh Raper] didn’t want their identities disclosed, didn’t want to be forever associated with sexual harassment,” she says. “They were outed against their will.”
Australia’s legal response was different
Unlike the Weinstein criminal case, most of the court cases emerging from Australia’s #MeToo movement have been defamation suits brought by the accused perpetrators themselves.
The defamation suit brought by Geoffrey Rush found in his favour, with the judge labelling actor Eryn Norville an “unreliable witness”.
Former children’s entertainer Wendy Dent lost a defamation suit she brought against Don Burke after he said her allegations that he once asked her to audition topless were part of a “witch hunt”.
Both cases are under appeal.
Only two criminal cases have emerged — Craig McLachlan is facing eight counts of indecent assault while Wolf Creek actor John Jarratt was cleared of historical rape charges.
Jarratt’s “not guilty” verdict emboldened #MeToo critics, with Janet Albrechtsen calling it a “win for reason”.
Police in several states told the ABC that reporting rates for sexual assault have increased since the #MeToo movement began, but claim much of the reporting is for historical offences not suitable for prosecution.
Meanwhile, calls to 1800RESPECT, the national sexual assault hotline, more than doubled after #MeToo, leading to calls for more support.
“If local services are under-resourced or non-existent then the model won’t work,” says women’s advocate and journalist Kristine Ziwica.
Yes, a single hashtag like #MeToo can change the world. But without the services to support survivors, there’s a real risk that it could harm the very individuals it seeks to empower.
A movement in turmoil
Much like the sexual assault services, Spicer was overwhelmed by the volume of disclosures she received. A Buzzfeed investigation found many of the nearly 2,000 women who disclosed to Spicer waited patiently for a response, believing their claims were in a queue. For many, a response would never come.
Some advocates say Spicer played a critical role in generating momentum in Australia and worked tirelessly on top of her work and family obligations. She was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her efforts, which she chose to share with #MeToo founder Tarana Burke.
But organisations that have worked in the sector for decades told Buzzfeed they were furious at the lack of consultation before Spicer opened her inbox to the deluge. They felt a precious opportunity for real reform had been squandered.
Divisions deepened when Spicer’s hastily-formed organisation, NOW, introduced its campaign with a glossy cover shoot on Business Chick’s’ Latte magazine. NOW board member and diversity activist Nareen Young called the all-white cover “shameful and embarrassing” before quitting the organisation.
Writer, commentator and Darug woman Laura La Rosa pointed out that #MeToo was started by Burke, a black woman, and called the cover “trickle-down white feminism” that “fails to reach and empower women on the fringes, or those determined to take a different path than the corporate one.”
Two years on, she stands by her assessment, telling ABC that “the movement was hijacked and capitalised on by celebrities and media figures who are removed from what’s really going on at the margins. This has resulted in no change whatsoever and caused great harm to many survivors”.
“In Australia, our priority should be on the issue of violence against women. Vital services have been grossly defunded and women are being harmed and killed at a catastrophic rate.”
Rosewarne from the University of Melbourne thinks #MeToo has been an important consciousness-raising movement, but acknowledges it “can’t be everything to everyone”.
“It absolutely fails to be inclusive for an enormous number of women who, for example, are in professions that aren’t of great interest to the media, have disabilities or aren’t of English-speaking background.”
What’re the barriers?
When Spicer stepped aside from the organisation she’d created citing vicarious trauma, women’s advocate and journalist Kristine Ziwica took the helm.
She began consultation with the sector, and from her conversations with 80 organisations believes there are three key barriers to reducing workplace harassment.
The first is the onus on individual women to bring costly and often traumatising legal proceedings against perpetrators.
The second is the lack of transparency in the other mechanisms outside of the courts.
When the Australian Human Rights Commission mediates workplace sexual harassment claims, the details remain confidential, but Ziwica believes more transparency about which organisations are found guilty would lead to greater accountability.
The third barrier is a lack of resources to enforce existing regulations.
O’Connell from UTS believes the law should evolve to compel workplaces to create a positive culture that keeps women safe, a solution called “positive duties”.
And Rosewarne believes more women in senior management would have a flow-on effect in preventing harassment.
But for women whose #MeToo stories were born outside of the workplace, justice remains elusive.
An ABC investigation revealed that of 140,000 sexual assaults reported to Australian police between 2007 and 2017, nearly 12,000 were rejected with police arguing they didn’t believe a sexual assault had occurred.
Just under 30 per cent of the reports led to an arrest, summons, caution or other legal action.
For the small number of women who make it inside a courtroom, the experience can be “re-traumatising”.
“My case took three years and eight months to resolve and I hated the whole process,” says clergy abuse survivor Georgie Burg.
“The brutalisation of victims is systemic and unnecessary. The Justice system must remember that victims of rape are helping society by coming forward.”
For Ziwica, the Weinstein verdict represents “the end of a chapter, but there’s plenty of work still to be done”.
“We’re still riding this wave, we have opportunities, we can get this done but we need to unite and press for change,” she says.
Ziwica and O’Connell point to the AHRC’s report on sexual harassment in the workplace, commissioned in response to #MeToo, which will be delivered any day now, and which they hope will create reform.
Burg feels there is further for the movement to go to deliver on its promise.
“I see the MeToo movement as like an undersea earthquake or an asteroid. You have the initial impact, but we’ll see ripples for many years,” she says.
“I would like to see this movement motivated by a sense of real humanity, not by internal politics. I hope very much that some survivors in this movement feel heard and supported.
“To those like me, who are watchful and bruised, let’s remember the children and young women we were and honour ourselves by not losing hope.”