New text messages between Asia Argento and an anonymous friend published by TMZ early Wednesday morning appear to confirm that the Italian actress and #MeToo figurehead had a sexual encounter with a minor. This latest development in the still-unfolding story highlights the need to understand nuance within the #MeToo movement, and to let go of the myth of the perfect victim.
The New York Times published an article on Sunday based on leaked documents sent between Argento’s lawyer Carrie Goldberg, and Gordon K. Sattro, the attorney for actor and musician Jimmy Bennett. The documents detail claims by Bennett, who played Argento’s son in the 2004 film The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, that Argento sexually assaulted him in a hotel room in California in 2013, when he was 17 and she was 37. The documents also include several photographs of Argento and Bennett in the hotel room together, including one where they’re both topless in bed, and outlines an agreement that Argento would pay Bennett a $380,000 settlement.
In a statement on Tuesday, Argento called the Times story “absolutely false” and part of a “long-standing persecution” against her since she came out as one of the first people to accuse Harvey Weinstein of rape.
“I never had any sexual relationship with Bennett,” she wrote. “I was linked to him during several years by friendship only, which ended when, subsequent to my exposure in the Weinstein case Bennett – who was then undergoing severe economic problems […] unexpectedly made an exorbitant request of money from me.” The statement goes on to explain that Argento’s boyfriend, the late Anthony Bordain, who “had his own reputation as a beloved figure to protect,” agreed to pay Bennett to put the matter to rest and prevent negative publicity.
Argento’s statement frames the story as a kid in financial trouble extorting an old friend for money by capitalizing on her involvement in the high profile #MeToo movement and the fact that she had a famous boyfriend with “perceived wealth.”
In the newly released text messages, which TMZ reports were sent following the Times story, Argento admits, contrary to her statement, to having sex with Bennett — though she claims he was the one who initiated the encounter, saying “the horny kid jumped me.” She also refers to Bennett’s “shakedown letter,” reiterating implications that Bennett’s notice of intent to sue was motivated by his financial situation, and not, as claimed, because, “His feelings about that day [in the hotel] were brought to the forefront recently when Ms. Argento took the spotlight as one of the many victims of Harvey Weinstein.”
“My trauma resurfaced as she came out as a victim herself,” Bennett reiterated Wednesday, in his first statement since the Times article. “I have not made a public statement in the past days and hours because I was ashamed and afraid to be part of the public narrative. I was underage when the event took place, and I tried to seek justice in a way that made sense to me at the time because I was not ready to deal with the ramifications of my story becoming public.”
Regardless of whether it was consensual or not, any sexual encounter between the two in 2013 would be a crime in California, where the age of consent is 18. This means that, regardless of the details of the encounter and Bennett’s motives for threatening legal action, Argento has found herself on the wrong end of a story about a young actor being taken advantage of by someone more powerful in the industry—exactly the kind of story, much like her own, that launched the #MeToo movement.
Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman took the opportunity to undermine Argento’s accusations against his client, in a statement to ABC News. And many, including prolific bad-take generator Bari Weiss, have claimed that this case — particularly Rose McGowan’s reaction to it — undermines the #MeToo movement as a whole and reveals hypocrisy in the movement’s mandate to believe victims. Kim Severson, who wrote the Times story, told CBC News, “A leader in the #MeToo movement having something like this in her background doesn’t look great.”
On the contrary, this story can show Argento herself to be a potential hypocrite without invalidating the progress that’s been made toward outing abusers and supporting victims of sexual abuse — and accusations against her should have no impact on whether her own claims of abuse are believed. As Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement so eloquently put it on Twitter, “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. Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn’t change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist or professor of any gender.”
“There is no one way to be a perpetrator …and there is no model survivor,” Burke continued, reminding us that the issue here is not whether Argento is good or bad, victim or perpetrator —that the news that she victimized Bennett does not diminish the fact that she was victimized by Weinstein. If anything, Argento’s existence as both alleged perpetrator and victim could force the #MeToo conversation into its next necessary stage: zooming out from the shock and outrage of seeing one after another of our “faves” being outed as predators, and turning our attention to the system that allows people in positions of power to sexually exploit those around them. The real conversation we need to be having is not any one case and its nuances and minutiae, but power and the sexual violence it allows.