Terror is what most victims of high-profile men feel, even when the abuse happened years ago, even when the abuser has died. It’s what keeps men like Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein safe and prevents so many women from reporting what happened to them.
It has been a year since Weinstein, one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood, was jailed. Since then I’ve probably had a phone call a week from someone looking for advice after suffering sexual abuse.
Most worked in the entertainment industry and have been abused by men in positions of power, who can take their jobs away in an instant. Not making a fuss means you save your career — but also keep your ordeal to yourself. But that dark secret does not go away; it sits waiting for a flash of a moment, a reminder of the terror and that familiar sickening feeling. Women say time and again that they were too frightened of not being believed by colleagues, friends and family and assumed their employer would support their abuser over them.
Seeing a powerful, seemingly indestructible man brought crashing down by a jury, witnessed by hundreds of millions on television, opened the floodgates and gave hundreds of women the confidence to talk about it. So many said that once they’d heard another woman’s story, they felt they could tell their own.
The difficulty for most victims is knowing where to turn. Historically, the police have a poor reputation for dealing with rape cases and securing prosecution. But specialised teams of officers who know how to listen mean things have improved and, as is evident from a recent high-profile rape trial in the UK courts, abusers will be convicted. Even in the civil courts, where the balance of probabilities is lower than in the criminal courts, securing settlement generally depends on one woman’s testimony being backed up by other women telling the same story, part of what made the #MeToo movement so powerful.
Victims’ funds, used in America and originally set up to offer support to people abused by employees of various church groups, circumvent the need for a rollercoaster of litigation.
Victims submit testimony to the administrators rather than through the courts. Financial recompense is at least some recognition at some level.
In the case of Epstein, an American fund has been set up for his victims, and I am helping British women to secure some sense of justice by applying to that fund. The fund is a force for good: an acknowledgment at least, but also a chance for a victim to tell their story, to be believed.
Having not spoken of such issues for many years, for women such as my clients to have these conversations is not easy. But when they do, the power of the secret that they felt forced to keep is in some part alleviated.
If we could introduce victims’ funds in the UK, this could be a very good thing. Removing the adversarial aspect of litigation, with proper scrutiny in place, would, in some cases and industries, lead to a much wider conversation and could result in real change.
The wave of women who came forward to report Weinstein paved the way for a momentous step forward in attitudes to sexual abuse, generating a level of strength and confidence from which there is no going back.
'Choose to challenge' is the theme of International Women’s Day 2021. From my perspective, an increasing number of victims who have done just that.
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