Italian actress Asia Argento was one of the first to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault last fall, setting off a flurry of other allegations against the movie producer, ending his career and sparking the #MeToo movement. At the same time, according to the New York Times, Argento was allegedly scrambling to quiet her own accuser – former child actor Jimmy Bennett, who claims that Argento assaulted him in 2013, shortly after his 17th birthday when she was 37 years old. The Times have allegedly obtained legal documents sent between Bennett’s and Argento’s attorneys arranging for Bennett to be paid $380,000 in the months after Argento made headlines as a prominent Weinstein accuser.
Argento and Bennett first met in 2004, when the then-seven-year-old was cast as her son in the film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, based on the book by J.T. Leroy, which Argento directed. In the film, Bennett’s character is assaulted by his mother’s boyfriend. Argento and Bennett kept in touch via social media in subsequent years, jokingly referring to each other as mother and son in tweets and Instagram comments, and Bennett, according to the Times, considered Argento a mentor.
Then, in May 2013, a few months after Bennett turned 17, he and a family member met up with Argento at her hotel room at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey, California. According to the Times’ summary of Bennett’s account, Argento asked to be alone with Bennett, and the family member left. According to Bennett, Argento gave him alcohol, then proceeded to kiss him, perform oral sex on him and had sexual intercourse with him. In California, where the age of consent is 18, these acts are considered “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” or “statutory rape.”
The documents obtained by the Times include multiple photos of Argento and Bennett in bed, semi-clothed, including one closeup of their faces which she posted to Instagram. They later had lunch – Argento posted another Instagram photo of the two at a restaurant – but on the way home, according to Bennett’s attorney Gordon K. Sattro, the teenager began to feel “extremely confused, mortified, and disgusted.”
Last November, shortly after Argento went public with her accusation that she was raped by Harvey Weinstein in 1997, Bennett’s attorney sent a notice of intent to sue, which asked for $3.5 million in damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, lost wages, assault and battery.
“His feelings about that day were brought to the forefront recently when Ms. Argento took the spotlight as one of the many victims of Harvey Weinstein,” wrote Sattro. The notice claims that Bennett was so traumatized by the May 2013 encounter that it negatively impacted his mental health and his acting career.
The notice was initially sent to Richard Hofstetter, the longtime attorney for Argento’s boyfriend, the late Anthony Bourdain, who was representing Argento at the time. Ultimately, Argento hired attorney Carrie Goldberg – who specializes in matters related to sexual assault, revenge porn and blackmail – to facilitate a deal in which Bennett was given an initial lump sum of $200,000, with the remaining $180,000 paid out in monthly installments over a year and a half. According to the Times, in an email to Argento outlining the final terms of the agreement, Goldberg referred to the money as “helping Mr. Bennett.”
“We hope nothing like this ever happens to you again,” Goldberg wrote to Argento. “You are a powerful and inspiring creator and it is a miserable condition of life that you live among shitty individuals who’ve preyed on both your strengths and your weaknesses.”
The deal did not include a nondisclosure agreement, as California law does not allow for it in civil contracts involving sexual assault claims like those being made by Bennett. According to the Times, Goldberg suggested that Argento could use a New York lawyer and argue that New York law, which would allow for a nondisclosure agreement, should apply; an email from Goldberg to Argento suggests the actress declined to pursue that option.
“Ultimately, you decided against the non-disclosure language because you felt it was inconsistent with the public messages you’ve conveyed about the societal perils of non-disclosure agreements,” Goldberg wrote to Argento. “Bennett could theoretically tell people his claims against you. However, under this agreement, he cannot sue you for them. Nor can he post the photo of the two of you.
“At the very least,” Goldberg went on, “he is not permitted to bother you for more money, disparage you or sue — so long as you comply with your obligations in the agreement.”
Goldberg did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment, and declined to speak to reporters from The New York Times as well.
While these allegations are sure to cast a shadow over Argento’s contributions to the #MeToo movement and her advocacy for sexual assault victims, it should not be used to impeach her own claims of assault by Weinstein. Nor should the allegations against her be taken less seriously because she is female and Bennett is male. Two things can be true at the same time, without canceling each other out – Argento can be both a victim of sexual assault at the hands of an abuser like Weinstein, and have committed sexual assault herself against a victim like Jimmy Bennett.