Five years after the #MeToo movement exposed pervasive sexual harassment and abuse in politics, show business and many other industries, cases playing out in California courtrooms are revealing how difficult it is for women to come forward with accusations against powerful men. They’re experiencing verbal abuse, fighting shame, and confronting fears of retaliation.
California’s First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a documentary filmmaker who was an aspiring actress in the early 2000s, is displaying remarkable bravery by participating in the Los Angeles rape trial of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who is accused of assault by eight women. His defense attorney described Siebel Newsom in court Monday as a “bimbo” who traded sex for career advancement in Hollywood. And that was just on the trial’s opening day. The insults and innuendos will probably get nastier when Siebel Newsom takes the stand in the weeks ahead.
With four children ages 6 to 13, and husband Gov. Gavin Newsom campaigning for reelection, it would be understandable if Siebel Newsom chose to hide the details of her 18-year-old rape allegation from the public by declining to participate in Weinstein’s trial. Nothing requires her to relive the nightmare on the stand. Her family life would undoubtedly be simpler if she buried the memories and stayed quiet.
But Siebel Newsom has agreed to testify, and that’s a commendable act of courage. She’s making personal sacrifices in pursuit of justice and to protect other women from similar abuse.
In another Hollywood rape trial underway in Los Angeles, a woman who accused actor Danny Masterson of raping her in 2003 while threatening her with a gun described fears that reporting the incident to police would get her expelled from the Scientology religion she, her family and Masterson belonged to. “My life would be over,” she said in court. “My parents would have to disconnect from me.”
Meanwhile, a settlement in a Sacramento case involving a former assemblyman accused of sexual misconduct by several women shows the limits of confidential reporting. Even when victims believe they’re speaking confidentially during a workplace investigation, that privacy can unravel in a lawsuit.
In the case of former Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, a Democrat from the San Fernando Valley, a judge ruled in 2020 that he had a right to know the identities of 52 witnesses who spoke confidentially to investigators looking into a claim that he had trapped a woman in a bathroom and made her watch him masturbate. After the judge’s ruling, the Assembly settled Dababneh’s lawsuit by giving him the list of names, essentially revealing the identities of the witnesses but sparing them from further disclosures that could have come out if the case had advanced to trial.
“This is the reason why many survivors don’t come forward,” one of the witnesses told Times reporters Taryn Luna and Hannah Wiley. She thought her interview with investigators about the allegation that Dababneh offered her a raise to convince a college student to sleep with him would be kept confidential.
Advocates are rightly concerned that the revelation will have a chilling effect on those willing to come forward to report sexual misconduct in the Capitol in the future.
Legislative leaders have acknowledged the need to improve the system they established to investigate workplace misconduct claims in response to the #MeToo movement. The settlement of Dababneh’s lawsuit makes clear that the changes must include ensuring that people who talk to investigators know in what circumstances their confidentiality could be breached.
The shame and fear people experience in making sexual abuse claims public is what’s kept many of them silent for so long and allowed powerful perpetrators to get away with their crimes. The #MeToo movement made inroads in changing the culture by empowering some women to speak out. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.