‘Anybody in a position of power can be corrupted by it,’ one psychologist pointed out.
The sexual assault allegation against #MeToo figurehead Asia Argento doesn’t have to derail the movement’s momentum, leaders and experts say.
The 42-year-old Italian actress, among the first to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, came under fire this week after the New York Times reported Sunday she had arranged a payment to former co-star Jimmy Bennett after he alleged she’d sexually assaulted him in a California hotel room. Bennett, now 22, was 17 at the time of the alleged 2013 assault; the state’s age of consent is 18.
Argento denied having had any sexual relationship with Bennett in a strongly worded statement Tuesday. She claimed the young actor “was then undergoing severe economic problems,” and knew that her boyfriend, the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, “was a man of great perceived wealth and had his own reputation as a beloved public figure to protect.” “Anthony personally undertook to help Bennett economically, upon the condition that we would no longer suffer any further intrusions in our life,” she said.
But text messages published by TMZ Wednesday after the publication of this story — allegedly between Argento and a friend — appeared to paint a different picture. “I had sex with him it felt weird. I didn’t know he was a minor until the shakedown letter,” Argento allegedly wrote. “The public knows nothing, only what NYT wrote. Which is one-sided. The shakedown letter. The horny kid jumped me.”
The actress also reportedly texted her friend a hotel-stationery love note she said Bennett had written. “He wrote me this afterwards and kept sending me unsolicited nudes all these years up until 2 weeks before the attorneys letter,” read her alleged messages. “It wasn’t raped (sic) but I was frozen. He was on top of me. After, he told me I had been his sexual fantasy since was 12.”
An attorney for Argento did not immediately return a request for comment.
Actress and fellow Weinstein accuser Mira Sorvino said early Wednesday that she was “heartsick” over the Argento allegations. “Time will clarify things and perhaps she will be exonerated, but if true, there is no lens that makes it better,” she wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. “Child sexual assault is a heinous crime and is against all that I and the #MeToo movement stands for.”
Meanwhile, Weinstein lawyer Benjamin Brafman pounced on the story Monday, decrying Argento’s “stunning level of hypocrisy” in a statement to Fox News. He pointed to “the sheer duplicity of her conduct” to make a case for “how poorly the allegations against Mr. Weinstein were actually vetted.”
But Vaile Wright, a licensed psychologist at the American Psychological Association and expert on sexual harassment and sexual violence, cautioned against focusing on individual behavior instead of the “systemic problem.” “We have a system where people in power take advantage of those who are vulnerable,” she told Moneyish. “Anybody in a position of power can be corrupted by it.”
Indeed, movement founder Tarana Burke pointed out that “there is no model survivor,” arguing “we are imperfectly human and we all have to be accountable for our individual behavior.” “I’ve said repeatedly that the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward,” she tweeted Monday. “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.”
The allegation against Argento also raises the context that it’s not rare “for perpetrators to also have experienced trauma,” Wright said. “In a sense, it becomes almost like a learned behavior,” she said. “When people are victimized, it changes their worldview often — and you sort of ingrain unhealthy cognitions around sex, and around power and consent.”
While people must be held accountable for their actions, Wright said, we need to think of how to enact change at a societal and systemic level. “That’s through laws and policies, and changing organizational climates, and empowering those who have been on the fringes,” she said.
Events like this typically spawn a backlash, Wright added, as those invested in remaining in power “will look for anything” to discredit a movement for fear of losing that power. But the assault allegation against Argento doesn’t negate her own allegation against Weinstein, she said. “We want to think about this in black and white, but it isn’t.”
“For every activist movement … there are people, organized or otherwise, who believe the exact opposite,” crisis management consultant Jonathan Bernstein told Moneyish. “The people who believe the exact opposite — who believe that all the #MeToo stuff is bull — are going to use this as an opportunity to try to tear down the movement.”
But whatever fodder Argento’s case provides is “very, very thin,” said Bernstein, because of the “cushion of goodwill” the anti-sexual misconduct movement has built since it took hold last fall. “They have such impetus now globally that a single possible deviation from their principles is not going to hurt the movement,” he said.
“If (leaders) stay focused on what the overall goal is of the organization, and … continue to show actions that continually reinforce those values, I think that the #MeToo movement should weather the storm,” added Ditto PR managing director Blain Rethmeier, a crisis communications expert.
Influential figures within the movement should also look back through their own individual histories, Bernstein said, and “see if there’s anything that could be questioned — because it’s always better to out yourself than to have someone else do it for you.” “They should first meet with their lawyers and their PR people … and talk about the potential risk of not saying something versus the risk of saying something,” he said.
As for how #MeToo leadership might talk about Argento and her efforts within the movement going forward, Bernstein suggested that “you can thank someone for their past contributions, while at the same time saying certain behavior was not OK.” “I think you can acknowledge that someone has been an important voice,” Wright added, “but has also made mistakes.”
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