Asia Argento was a voice of #MeToo. Now she is accused of sexual assault. What does it mean for the movement?
The two encounters happened 16 years apart, but they have striking similarities. In both cases, a young actor was summoned to a hotel room by a prominent Hollywood figure more than twice their age. There, the victims allege, they were coaxed onto a bed and sexually assaulted.
In one story, the alleged attacker is Harvey Weinstein. In the other, it’s one of his most vocal accusers.
Asia Argento emerged as a powerful figure in the #MeToo movement last fall after telling the New Yorker that during the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, Weinstein invited her to his hotel, came out in a bathrobe and sexually assaulted her. At this year’s festival, she delivered a bold speech about the experience.
“In 1997, I was raped by Harvey Weinstein — here at Cannes. I was 21 years old. This festival was his hunting ground,” she said in remarks that drew loud cheers and applause.
But now, the 42-year-old actress and director faces a reckoning of her own.
She is the subject of a criminal inquiry and has been attacked by critics calling her a hypocrite after the New York Times reported Sunday that she recently paid off a former child actor who said she sexually assaulted him in a Marina del Rey hotel room in 2013, when he was 17. In California, the age of consent is 18.
Two lawyers who represent Argento have not returned phone calls or emails seeking comment.
The allegations are unlikely to undermine the explosive #MeToo movement, which researchers say has exposed nearly 480 high-profile personalities, only about a dozen of them female, since last fall. But experts and activists say the claims against Argento do highlight a basic truth: Many sexual assault allegations are at their core about unfair power dynamics.
“Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn’t change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist or professor of any gender,” Tarana Burke, a founder of the #MeToo movement, said on Twitter. “My hope is that as more folks come forward, particularly men, that we prepare ourselves for some hard conversations about power and humanity and privilege and harm.”
The New York Times reported that Argento settled a notice of intent to sue from Jimmy Bennett, who in 2004 played her son in a film, for $380,000 in the months after she publicly accused Weinstein. Bennett is now 22.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Darren Harris said Monday that the department had not received a report on the alleged incident but was pursuing the matter by trying to interview the parties involved.
The allegation of a sexual assault and the payment agreement are laid out in documents between lawyers for Argento and Bennett that the newspaper received through encrypted email from an unknown source. The paper’s report did not state that Argento admitted any wrongdoing. The newspaper cited three unnamed sources as confirming the authenticity of the documents.
On May 9, 2013, Argento and Bennett — who on social media have referred to each other as mother and son — met for a reunion at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey. Argento posted a photo on that day showing her hugging Bennett, referring to him as “My son my love,” and included the month and year.
The New York Times report said Bennett’s letter of intent to sue laid out his account of the encounter: He arrived at the hotel with a family member, and Argento asked the family member to leave. When they were alone, she kissed the 17-year-old, removed his pants and performed oral sex, and then had sex with him, the document said, according to the newspaper.
Bennett’s attorney, Gordon Sattro, issued a statement Monday saying his client does not yet have a comment on the encounter.
“While we realize that the news cycle demands an immediate response, many times, people need more than a few minutes or hours to respond,” Sattro said. “We are asking that you give our client some time and space. Jimmy is going to take the next 24 hours, or longer, to prepare his response. We ask that you respect our client’s privacy during this time.”
An attorney for Weinstein, meanwhile, released a statement accusing Argento of “a stunning level of hypocrisy.”
“The sheer duplicity of her conduct is quite extraordinary and should demonstrate to everyone how poorly the allegations against Mr. Weinstein were actually vetted and accordingly, cause all of us to pause and allow due process to prevail, not condemnation by fundamental dishonesty,” the statement said.
Actress Rose McGowan, another leader of the #MeToo movement, distanced herself from Argento in a Twitter post Monday.
“I got to know Asia Argento ten months ago. Our commonality is the shared pain of being assaulted by Harvey Weinstein,” she wrote. “My heart is broken. I will continue my work on behalf of victims everywhere.”
The stunning role reversal shows how large the #MeToo movement has become, that it could turn around and target someone at its forefront.
“It’s a man-bites-dog story, and it’s an anomaly in a serious and profound movement forward,” said Davia Temin, a crisis manager who does research on the #MeToo movement. “It shows that the story gets more complicated.
“We get easy stories about how a man closes a door on a woman who is a young professional and tries to make a pass and says if she doesn’t he will hurt her progress.… This behavior is far more ubiquitous than we would ever know.”
Genie Harrison, an attorney representing one of Weinstein’s accusers, said abuse of power cannot ever be ignored, even if the alleged wrongdoer is a #MeToo leader.
“Though it seems incomprehensible for victims to become victimizers, history and storytelling are replete with examples of exactly this transformation,” Harrison said. “Victims need support and excellent therapy to have the best chance for full recovery and healthy relationships, including with themselves.”
Daniel Medwed, a professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, said that despite Argento’s leadership role in #MeToo, the movement is much larger than any one person.
“There are many other strong voices contributing to the discourse,” Medwed said. “The movement can’t be derailed at this stage. It’s something that has been brewing for decades.”
But the scrutiny on Argento could lead victims of sexual harassment to think twice about coming forward as a public leader in the movement, he said.
“With power comes responsibility, and leading the charge of this movement risks more attention and scrutiny to your behavior,” Medwed said. “It sends a signal that if you get out in front of the movement, everything you’ve done can be unearthed.”
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