'Friendly' Emails Are Not Evidence Harvey Weinstein Did Nothing Wrong | Opinion

This week, the criminal trial of Harvey Weinstein is finally underway. Though over 80 women have accused him of sexual misconduct, including harassment and assault, he is facing only five charges in New York state, all hinging on reported assaults against two women.

Weinstein's strategy for the trial appears to be the same as it has always been: deny the accusations and discredit the accusers.

His defense attorney revealed in a recent interview that "friendly" emails sent to the media mogul from some of his alleged victims will be central to this strategy. Messages like "Miss you, big guy," and "I appreciate all you do for me" were highlighted. The lawyer insinuated that if Weinstein was such a bad person, these women would have run far and fast from him, instead of trying to court a connection.

As trauma mental health professionals who spend a good deal of time working with sexual abuse survivors, we know this is simply untrue. What perpetrators, and people who protect them, don't want you to know is that this is a common response to a very abusive power differential. In the field, we refer to this behavior as traumatic bonding or Stockholm syndrome. This is not friendship, or mentorship, or even a relationship. Many sexually abused women just call it survival.

While it is true that some sexual assault survivors engage in behavioral changes post-assault, like moving or changing jobs, taking self-defense classes, or avoiding alcohol and drugs, the ties that bind other women to their powerful abuser are a result of other classic trauma responses.

In situations where someone's self-esteem and identity are heavily influenced by, or even dependent upon, the very person abusing them (e.g., their parent or spouse or boss), a victim's behavior can seem surprising to people on the outside. Humiliated, demeaned, begging for breath, women with such a paradoxical attachment sometimes do the opposite of what is expected. Rather than run, they cling. Rather than report, they cajole, bargain, flirt and do everything they can to stay in the good graces of their perpetrator. They may even stay in a romantic relationship with their abuser. NBC staffer Brooke Nevils continued her relationship with Matt Lauer after he allegedly raped her, just as many victims of domestic violence remain with their abusers.

"Friendly" emails are not evidence Weinstein did nothing wrong. Such communications are a common symptom of victims' internal struggle to stay above the water.

When the abuser is seen as an authority figure, with an omnipresent powerful presence who controls their livelihood and financial prosperity, some women feel they have no choice but to be compliant. At the very least, they know they will interact with their abuser again post-assault, and so they adopt an adaptive indifference to cope. They may convince themselves he won't do it again, or they may turn the blame inward, wondering what they did to deserve their abuse. Being sexually assaulted, exploited and battered can lead to what looks like psychological paralysis. They may also worry, with good cause, about retaliation if they ever decided to come forward.

This would have been demonstrably true in the case of Weinstein and his accusers. Even after the alleged acts of sexual violence, there would have been no escaping him. The power and control Weinstein wielded would have brought unrelenting, reverberating stress into every aspect of his victims' lives and forced them into isolation. There was nowhere he couldn't reach in the Hollywood universe.

Even if women did try to speak up, nondisclosures were signed and silence was bought. Perhaps that is why there are years of alleged abuse history and more than 80 women with similar stories about Weinstein who didn't know about one another or were afraid to reach out—and are just now coming forward.

Our culture only further perpetuates the silence. Many victims do not disclose because when they share their experiences, they are so often met with negative responses. Many women we have worked with report that people (friends, family members, law enforcement) responded to their disclosures with disbelief, questioning not only their traumatic experiences but their character. Rather than engaging the victims and getting them help, people instead label the assault harmless fun or a bad hook-up—or respond with blame, criticism and judgment. They dissect women's actions and responses, placing shame where it does not belong.

Some people attempt to minimize sexual assault experiences, saying it is no big deal and to quickly get over it. At best, these responses might be seen as unsupportive, but victims often experience them as a betrayal and socially withdraw.

Harvey Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein arrives at New York City criminal court for his sex crimes trial on January 9 in New York City. Weinstein, a movie producer whose alleged sexual misconduct helped spark the #MeToo movement, pleaded not guilty on five counts of rape and sexual assault against two unnamed women and faces a possible life sentence in prison. Stephanie Keith/Getty

It might seem obvious, but these reactions from loved ones or the public do a lot of harm. In an analysis of over 50 scientific studies on social reactions to disclosures of interpersonal violence, those who were met with negative initial responses, such as controlling, distracting and threatening survivors, had measurably more mental health difficulties.

Furthermore, some women who experience forced, unwanted sex do not initially label it as rape. These women have been referred to in the scientific literature as unacknowledged victims. Their perpetrators typically use less force, and thus the violation might initially not fully register. They are often left post-assault in a type of haze, wondering, "Did that really just happen to me?" Not sure how to interpret their assault, they initially give it a more benign label, such as a miscommunication.

Unacknowledged victims are more likely to report that they continued a relationship with the perpetrator post-assault. But make no mistake: There are no differences in depression and somatic symptoms between unacknowledged and acknowledged rape victims. And unacknowledged victims are more likely to report more hazardous alcohol use and are at greater risk of revictimization than women who accurately label their assault for what it was. They are also at heightened risk of believing the invalidation of their friends, family and society.

Regardless of whether women who were sexually assaulted maintained a connection with their perpetrator, or whether they initially did not accurately acknowledge it as rape, it is time our culture stopped blaming women and redeeming perpetrators. Even if trauma makes women act in a way we don't completely understand, it takes incredible strength for them to stand up and take back their power.

One way to support their positive psychological change and fortitude is to finally do what someone should have all along: Believe them.

Dr. Joan Cook is an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Jessi Gold is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis and a founding member of Time's Up Healthcare.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own. Harvey Weinstein has pleaded not guilty and denies all allegations of non-consensual sex.