Following Harvey Weinstein’s rape conviction, the satirical feminist website Reductress ran an article headlined “How to Support Prison Abolition While Still Hoping Harvey Weinstein Rots in Prison for the Rest Of His Days”. It’s a tongue-in-cheek but sincere reassurance to those who are generally against carceral solutions but couldn’t help taking some satisfaction in Weinstein’s comeuppance.
This was something I had been puzzling over since I first read that Weinstein had been found guilty (of one count of sexual assault, and one count of rape). I couldn’t quite figure out how his fate made me feel. I was shocked and relieved that he had failed to buy his way out. I hoped that his victims were feeling some measure of comfort. But could I say I was happy that this pathetic, awful man was going to prison? Not really. I was glad that he wasn’t evading justice – and I knew the only available outcomes were jail or no jail. But it brought me no pleasure.
Online, people began to make jokes about prison rape, as they inevitably do when a high-profile sex offender is jailed. It always shocks me, that ugliness. I have been a victim of rape, so I’m not surprised by its existence, or that some people wish to inflict that particular pain on others. It does surprise me, though, whenever I see these commentators, so confident in their moral superiority, expressing their desire for another person to be raped. I can understand the impulse towards retribution – but that desire reinforces a world in which sexual humiliation remains a legitimate means of exchange, a method of teaching one another that we are worthless, below human. Even if the victim in question happens to be a terrible, irredeemable person, that isn’t an economy I want any part in.
When we think about imprisoning the guilty, what is it that we’re thinking about? On a prosaic level we want to seclude them, to stop their ability to continue inflicting pain on others. We want to make a declaration to society that the acts they have committed are not acceptable. On a less defendable level, we want to punish them. We want them to experience suffering – imagining, perhaps, that it is possible to inflict on them suffering equal to the suffering they have caused to others. But the aggressor can never be compelled to feel the pain of another person: we can only create original and secondary pain. The equilibrium we seek can never be found.
Though I knew that, I used to entertain revenge fantasies after it happened to me. I watched rape-retaliation films; newer models directed by women – such as Revenge, MFA, and Holiday – but older exploitation flicks too. As crass and absurd as the likes of I Spit On Your Grave and The Last House on the Left are, I was enraptured by them all. The male gaze and the campy, blood-soaked iconography were OK by me because they made me feel fired up and giddy. I wanted anything that made me feel something about the situation other than depressed, hopeless and fundamentally bored.
A picture of Thana – the mute seamstress from Ms 45 who is driven mad after multiple assaults – wearing a nun’s habit and glossy red lipstick and wielding a gun was for a time my phone’s screensaver. There is a power in images of women pushed past breaking point, disrupting the systems that ordinarily allowed violence against them. I did not fantasise about rapists in the dock or being led away in handcuffs. I did not fantasise about what we call justice.
When we talk about the opposition between revenge and justice – revenge being emotional, brutal and personal, and justice being objective, rational and legal – we are buying into a reality that doesn’t exist. We’re imagining a pure, uncompromised moral entity, but the justice system is infected with all the usual immoralities – nowhere less so than in the US, where it is characteristic of the nation’s social ills.
More than two million American adults live behind bars, 655 people per 100,000 (compared with 174 people per 100,000 in England and Wales). The prison system in the US employs four times as many people as McDonald’s. Black people are victims of racial bias at every level of legal interaction, from stop and frisk to conviction and sentencing. Of her time in anti-prison work in the 1960s, Angela Davis wrote: “Had anyone told me that in three decades ten times as many people would be locked away in cages, I would have been absolutely incredulous. I imagine that I would have responded something like this: ‘As racist and undemocratic as this country may be, I do not believe that the US government will be able to lock up so many people without producing powerful resistance. No, this will never happen, not unless this country plunges into fascism.’”
Weinstein, as a white rich man, is an exception to the general rules of justice in the US – but his exceptionality is meaningless in the broader scheme of things, and his imprisonment will not portend any wider change within it. He evaded the consequences of his sexual crimes for so long because of an ecosystem of bribes, threats and private policing, which his economic success allowed. The system of patriarchal capitalism that enabled his violence is not at odds but continuous with the justice system. I can’t enjoy his imprisonment not because I feel sorry for him, but because it’s a reminder that even the best-case scenario in our world is a pretty paltry one.
What would I want for him, I wonder. If I could choose an ending for this man, or the man who hurt me, or any of the rest of them, what would it be? I think beyond prison, beyond bloody revenge fantasies, what I would inflict on them is a moment – just one would do – of genuine understanding, for them to know for just a second the reality of what they have done, and to care.
This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10