From 1993 through 2016, a rotating cast of actresses from Gwyneth Paltrow to Penélope Cruz glided onto the stage at award shows like the Oscars and Golden Globes to thank Harvey Weinstein for the role he played in their careers.
Each time, it was like a punch to the gut for former model Paula Williams.
In 1990, the then-20-year-old met Weinstein at a pre-Oscar party when he invited her to a dinner party at his home the following week. Eager to make connections to further her fledgling career, she says she agreed, but when she arrived, she was the only guest there. He began massaging her, and offered her champagne before exposing himself. She managed to escape, running through neighboring yards in her heels fearing that he might chase after her.
In the ensuing years, she heard rumblings that she might not have been the only one. But with each thank you speech, with every celebration of his career, she felt alone. She knew instinctively that she couldn’t tell anyone what happened — it just wasn’t done. It wasn’t until 2017, when the accusations against Weinstein became public, that Williams realized just how many women shared her story.
Now, more than two years after the first major story about Weinstein’s alleged abuses broke, he is standing trial in New York, where he’s facing five counts of rape and sexual assault of two women. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
During the first week of his trial, which began Jan. 6, prosecutors in Los Angeles announced that the disgraced film producer has also been charged with four felony counts of rape and sexual assault dating back to 2013. While the case is in early stages and expected to take months, we spoke with activists and legal experts to get their thoughts on the case.
When she first arrived at New York’s State Supreme Court, Williams was terrified. It melted away when she saw the crowd of women — fellow women who accused Weinstein — gathered around and waiting for the trial to begin.
Weinstein walked right past them, hobbling up the steps with the help of a walker. “He looked pretty pathetic,” she said.
From the moment she came forward in October 2017, her life was completely changed. For years she had buried the darkest moment of her life and refused to look back, but now, she could begin to heal.
As far as the trial goes, she knows better than to expect too much. “I’m already happy,” she said. “Just seeing him held accountable is incredible because this is a day that none of us ever thought we would see. This is a win for all women who want to put an end to this awful culture where we protect rapists.”
From 1990 to 2020, the difference has been night and day. Though she says she saw some eye rolling from people when the accusations were first made public, for the most part, she’s seen more people than not embracing the #MeToo movement and demanding change in their lives or in their industries.
“Change is uncomfortable,” she said. “But I never thought this would even be a reality. All of us are such a force, and I’m so proud to align myself with this cause.”
President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center
For Goss Graves, the trial is about far more than accountability for Harvey Weinstein.
Through her work with other survivors of sexual harassment and abuse, she’s seen the impact that the allegations against the producer have had firsthand. “He is such an important symbol of the violence and harassment that’s been so pervasive in this country for years,” she said. “People are watching this closely because the silence breakers who have come forward inspired so many others to do the same, and there’s a deep desire to see them get the justice they’re seeking.”
The women who have come forward to speak out about Weinstein, who have often been referred to as “Silence Breakers” — a nod to Time magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year designation — have undoubtedly forced a shift in the conversations surrounding sexual violence. And while many feel that the change is welcome, in an interview with Vanity Fair, Weinstein’s lawyer, Donna Rotunno, said that “women may rue the day that all of this started when no one asks them out on a date, and no one holds the door open for them, and no one tells them that they look nice.”
Weinstein’s team plans to argue that his accusers engaged in consensual sex, while the prosecution plans to call “prior bad acts” witnesses who fall out of the statute of limitations, but can attest to a pattern of behavior.
“You have to contextualize his conduct,” said Goss Graves. “It seems to me that his team is planning on arguing that this was all just confusion and consensual sex. That’s why it’s important that these other witnesses come forward, because it’s harder to argue that all of these women were confused.”
Goss Graves is hopeful that, regardless of the outcome, the case will help to dismantle harmful myths about sexual violence that often only serve to discourage survivors from going to the police.
“There’s a big microphone for [Weinstein] in this case,” she said. “But there’s also a big microphone for the silence breakers. Sexual violence doesn’t just look like one thing, and this case is helping to expand people’s understanding of that.”
Vice president of communications at Time’s Up
A recent CBS News Poll revealed that, for most adults in the United States, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have made progress on raising awareness about sexual harassment. The majority of Americans also view the movements favorably. For Harrington, this is a huge win.
Weinstein’s trial beginning provides the perfect opportunity to look back on how much has changed since the first public accusations against Weinstein were reported. And while Harrington is careful to acknowledge that many women laid the groundwork for this movement (mostly without the benefit of a network of support), an international obsession with Hollywood finally instigated a wider conversation.
“What’s been so powerful about this case is that so many survivors quietly endured this for so long, but to find out that some of the most influential —and powerful women in our society were subject to it as well has been such a huge wake up call,” she said.
So with all the national attention surrounding the producer’s trial, Harrington is also hoping that just as many people zero in on the broader changes that need to be made outside of Hollywood — from changing statutes of limitation to better accommodate the time victims need to process their trauma to proactive policies that work toward harassment-free workplaces.
“The most important thing that can come from this trial is some measure of justice for his survivors,” she said. “But we also want to see justice for survivors at large in the form of real change in the culture that permitted this to happen.”