The Asia Argento News Is Upsetting, But Could It Be Good For #MeToo?

Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.
On Sunday night, the New York Times dropped a bombshell report that Asia Argento, — the Italian actress, director, and activist who lead the charge against Harvey Weinstein and became a leading voice for #MeToo movement — quietly settled claims that she had sexually assaulted a then 17-year-old boy. On Tuesday morning, Argento made a public statement denying the allegations and saying that her then-boyfriend Anthony Bourdain had paid off Bennett, who she said had harassed the couple.
These unsettling allegations are already creating rifts among supporters over the purpose of #MeToo and the future of the movement. With Harvey Weinstein's trials looming in the near future, the claims have prompted speculation about the veracity of Argento’s allegations against him. And, with prominent #MeToo voices, including Tarana Burke, already distancing themselves from Argento, many question whether these developments undermine the movement as a whole.
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But can we slow down for a minute? We live an era where the rampant ‘cancel culture’ threatens to dismiss entire movements because of the actions of one imperfect person. There's no doubt that Argento and Rose McGowan are both imperfect victims; their militancy undermined by later allegations and actions. We’d be kidding ourselves to say otherwise. But this doesn’t cancel #MeToo. It remains a more crucial challenge to critically engage with people’s mistakes while also striving to examine our own biases. From the beginning, #MeToo has been an aggressively polarized battle of “he said, she said” — and this case is no different. What we need now is some nuance.
Yes, the allegations against Argento are serious enough to momentarily overshadow the conversation around #MeToo, but they also offer an important opportunity to reframe and transform the movement into a stronger version of itself. For all its strengths, one of the major hangups of #MeToo has been a myopic characterization of sexual violence, focused largely on the actions of a few powerful men against (mostly) white women in (mostly) white collar professions. It’s worth noting this was a departure from Burke’s initial vision of a movement centering around low-income Black and Brown girls. Still, #MeToo has unquestionably managed to incite an international reckoning, but it has also repeatedly employed narrow definitions of who a victim can be and flattened how complex the issues of sexual harassment and abuse really are.
Over the past 10 months, since the hashtag first took off, women of color, undocumented immigrants, trans men and women, disabled people, and others on the margins of society, have routinely been left out. Also mostly forgotten in this conversation? Men. This whiplash moment gives leaders of the movement a chance to look at things differently and open themselves up to more nuance and inclusivity.
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“I’ve said repeatedly that the [#MeToo movement] is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward,” #MeToo founder Tarana Burke tweeted on Sunday in response to the Argento news. “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.”
Burke is right, but for the past nine months, #MeToo has not been altogether hospitable of male victims of sexual abuse. Although there have been inklings of abuses against men — incidents implicating Kevin Spacey, the Catholic clergy, and Ohio State University team doctor Dr. Richard Strauss are just a few — most supporters of #MeToo have been less than inclined to welcome them into the movement. In fact, many men who have come forward about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault, whether in entertainment, sports, or other fields, have repeatedly found themselves somehow outside of the movement.
Just last week, Nimrod Reitman filed a lawsuit against his former, female graduate advisor New York University professor Avital Ronell. The story drew particular media attention because it’s a rare example of a man accusing a woman; the case is even more complicated because both Reitman and Ronnell identify as gay. Interestingly, even as Ronell was accused of abuse and harassment, many prominent members of the feminist community, including gender theorist Judith Butler, rallied behind Ronell instead of supporting Reitman — the male victim.
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Because such incidents fall outside of societal preconceptions of sexual misconduct, they are often dismissed or downplayed. We’re once again seeing this push-pull with the Argento/Bennett case. These narratives run the gamut, from portraying Argento as a cougar or a victim of Weinstein’s hype machine to wholly dismissing Bennett’s allegations because ‘how can a woman rape a man?’ But this oversimplification of who can be a victim is the very reason #MeToo is needed in the first place. Now, the #MeToo movement itself must move beyond who it has implicitly defined as a victim.
To be sure, sexual assault and domestic violence disproportionately affect women and girls, but not exclusively: A recent survey from Stop Street Harassment found that while 81 percent of women reported experiencing sexual abuse, 43 percent of men did, too. Given this, incidents exposing women as perpetrators of sexual misconduct give us an opportunity to expand the #MeToo movement to make space for all victims — regardless of their identity. After all, it’s entirely possible to be both a victim and perpetrator.
We must consider divergent narratives, such as Argento’s, as important opportunities to examine our own preconceived notions of sexual abuse. Especially given the fact that, in this culture of violence, victims and perpetrators are sometimes cut from the same cloth. In order for this movement to succeed, we must reckon now with the complexity of sex and power and how these dynamics can have a seismic impact on anyone and everyone.
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