Asia Argento accusations don't weaken #MeToo, they show why it's needed

Asia Argento, one of the #MeToo movement's most prominent figureheads, has been accused of sexual assault. A...

Posted: Aug 25, 2018 9:06 PM
Updated: Aug 25, 2018 9:06 PM

Asia Argento, one of the #MeToo movement's most prominent figureheads, has been accused of sexual assault. According to the New York Times, in the months after she was named by Ronan Farrow among the women allegedly raped by Harvey Weinstein, Argento agreed to a settlement of $380,000 for her own accuser, a young musician and actor called Jimmy Bennett.

Argento played Bennett's mother in 2004's "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," and the pair had remained in sporadic contact since. The documents sent to the NYT included a photo of Argento lying down with Bennett in 2013, when Bennett claimed they had sex. At the time, Argento was 37, and Bennett had just turned 17. The age of consent in California is 18, meaning that if the pair did have intercourse then, it would be defined as statutory rape. Argento said her financial arrangement with Bennett was covered by her then boyfriend, the late TV chef Anthony Bourdain.

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Some, including Weinstein's own attorney and men's rights activists who came to his defense, argue that Bennett's accusation, and the financial agreement between Bennett and Argento, have called the #MeToo movement into question. Bari Weiss of the New York Times wrote this week: "Women are hypocrites. Women are abusers. Women are liars. Just like men."

Twitter has lit up with people from all sides decrying Argento and #MeToo, exacerbated by inconsistencies in her account of events. But while this might plunge her into murky waters, the same isn't necessarily true of #MeToo.

First, it is necessary to make the distinction between movement and person. Civil rights activist Tarana Burke, a founder of the #MeToo movement, tweeted on Monday: "I've said repeatedly that the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward. It will continue to be jarring when we hear the names of some of our faves connected to sexual violence unless we shift from talking about individuals, and begin to talk about power."

She continued: "Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn't change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist or professor of any gender."

As Burke says, this is a question of principles, not of people. Bennett's story has raised several themes that deserve further scrutiny, not least the shame male victims of sexual assault feel about coming forward.

His affectionate messages to Argento apparently after their encounter also merit discussion, as long as some still attempt to make the case that continuing a cordial relationship with your abuser nullifies their abuse (it doesn't).

Furthermore, Bennett's assertion that seeing Argento speak out publicly against Weinstein triggered upsetting memories for him will also sound familiar to many who have seen their abusers lauded for their apparent good principles.

The idea of a "perfect" victim is a strange one. Perpetrating a crime doesn't inoculate a person against being a victim later, and an abuser's guilt should not be contingent on a victim's aggregate innocence.

This is why crimes are tried by courts according to the law -- they are not a zero sum game of responsibility shifted from individual to individual. Weinstein's attorney Ben Brafman told TMZ after the story surfaced: "This development reveals a stunning level of hypocrisy by Asia Argento, one of the most vocal catalysts who sought to destroy Harvey Weinstein."

Brafman added: "What is perhaps most egregious, is the timing, which suggests that at the very same time Argento was working on her own secret settlement for the alleged sexual abuse of a minor, she was positioning herself at the forefront of those condemning Mr. Weinstein."

But Ben Brafman and his fellow #MeToo decriers can't have it both ways. If Argento has done wrong and is to be held accountable, everyone else who has committed sexual assault must be too.

Weinstein, who also is facing criminal charges in New York, has denied all allegations of "non-consensual sexual activity."

To "victimise" Weinstein and paint him as an aggrieved party both diminishes Bennett's pain if his claims are true, and insults Weinstein's own victims.

Weinstein's alleged crimes against Argento aren't rendered "less than" by the accusations leveled against her, and neither are the traumas of the women and men who have been encouraged by her and others to speak out. To imply that they are so feels like a sinister expansion of the old "she was asking for it" defense -- the suggestion is: "she had it coming."

The worst reaction to Bennett's accusations against Argento would be to shy away from them because they feel tricky. If they are true, that doesn't invalidate #MeToo. It demonstrates the need for it.

The entire point of the movement is to hold power to account, and to stop those who have power taking advantage of those who have less. It has shaken up a complacent status quo that assumed that simply because someone is famous, or rich, or influential, they are above scrutiny. Asia Argento shouldn't be protected by association any more than Harvey Weinstein apparently was for so many years. If #MeToo was about the blind idolatry of people, it could be in trouble now. But it isn't, it's about the exact opposite.

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