There is a new boldface name in the #MeToo crosshairs—and this time it’s a woman.
Italian actress Asia Argento, the former girlfriend of the late Anthony Bourdain and one of the most vocal leaders of the #MeToo movement that has held powerful men to account for their own actions, paid off her own male accuser earlier this year, The New York Times reported on Sunday. Argento paid $380,000 to Jimmy Bennett, an actor and musician, who alleges that the then-37-year-old Argento sexually assaulted him in a California hotel room in 2013 when he was 17, the paper said. The two played mother and son in the 2004 film, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.” Argento denies she had any sexual relations with Bennett.
Documents, which included a 2013 selfie of the two parties lying in bed, were sent to the Times via an encrypted email from an anonymous source. “The fallout from ‘a sexual battery’ was so traumatic that it hindered Mr. Bennett’s work and income and threatened his mental health, according to a notice of intent to sue that his lawyer sent in November to Richard Hofstetter, Mr. Bourdain’s longtime lawyer, who was also representing Ms. Argento at the time,” the paper reported. Argento is one of several women who have accused movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault.
In a statement released Tuesday, Argento said she “strongly” denies having any sexual relationship with Bennett and said suggestions to the contrary are “absolutely false.” She said they were friends until her allegations against Harvey Weinstein were made and Bennett, she said, “unexpectedly made an exorbitant request of money from me.” She added, “Anthony personally undertook to help Bennett economically, upon the condition that we would no longer suffer any further intrusions in our life.” She called the demand for money “a long-standing persecution.”
Some feel the controversy is a blow to the credibility of the #MeToo movement, while others say it highlights a key point: Harassment is first and foremost about power, no matter who wields it. “I’ve said repeatedly that the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward,” Tarana Burke, the founder of MeToo, tweeted Monday. After initially tweeting that the Argento payment was a “set up,” actress Rosanna Arquette wrote on Twitter TWTR, +3.08% “I stand by anyone who is a victim of sexual abuse I always have and I always will.”
‘It helps give breadth to an understanding of the problem.’
Reports of women perpetrators are also largely undocumented. In fact, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission only records the gender of the accusers, not the gender of the alleged perpetrators. Of the 6,696 sexual harassment allegations filed last year, the EEOC reported that just 16.5% were filed by men, a percentage that has remained largely unchanged over the last decade. Given that most alleged offenders are men, it’s not unreasonable to assume that most sexual harassment against men was also carried out by other men.
However, women service members said 94% of their alleged offenders were male, according to a Department of Defense report released last year. Men said 57% of their alleged offenders were male, 25% were female, and 12% of men said their alleged offenders were a mix of men and women. But Drobac says the percentages of women perpetrators in the wider population are likely far lower than that. “It’s often because they don’t have the power,” she said. “It would make sense that in the hierarchical Defense Department some women may have power and abuse that power.”
Experts say women perpetrators of sexual harassment are rare, but sheds a light on a complex issue. “It helps give breadth to an understanding of the problem,” said Jennifer Drobac, professor of law at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. “I remember when pornography involving women wasn’t viewed as offensive and it wasn’t considered that women were being sexually objectified and then when gay male pornography became more mainstream and known, men began to feel sexually objectified, and they began to understand what it was like for women.”
Asia Argento’s payment to Jimmy Bennett is not the only complex case involving a celebrated feminist that has both complicated and shone a light on another aspect of the #MeToo campaign. Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University, was suspended by NYU after an investigation concluded that she was responsible for physical and verbal sexual harassment of a student, The New York Times reported earlier this month. She referred to him in emails as her “cock-er spaniel” and “beautiful Nimrod.”
Ronell, 66, has denied any harassment and has said the communications were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman. She released a statement to MarketWatch, which read in part: “Ronell has consistently, categorically, and unqualifiedly denied all of Reitman’s allegations, the first and only such allegations made against Ronell during her forty year career as an educator.” And she said the Title IX complaint found no evidence of sexual contact, which Reitman had alleged took place in May 2012, prior to his attending NYU.”
In a joint letter, a group of more than 50 professors from the U.S. and around the world, who said they had not read the Title IX complaint against Ronell, expressed their “profound an enduring admiration for Professor Ronell.” Ronell also passed on an excerpt from Reitman’s dissertation, which credited Ronell as a “wonderful dissertation advisor,” and thanked Ronell for her “teaching, careful reading, sensitive support.” Reitman, for his part, has alleged that his former professor refused to work with him if he did not reciprocate.
Another complication in calculating the nature, truth and scope of sexual misconduct allegations: Many people decide not to file charges against their alleged perpetrators. They may worry that they won’t be believed, fear a backlash, or just simply decide it’s not worth the stress and anxiety. Both men and women may be reluctant to report sexual harassment or even assault. “It’s also possible that the statistics and anecdotal evidence is low in the lay population because men don’t report such cases because of the stigmatizing effect it may have on them,” Drobac added.
‘It’s important that we believe all survivors.’
Drobac said all the men she has represented in sexual harassment cases were harassed by other men. “Either they were gay and they were being harassed for that or they were being threatened with rape because they didn’t meet the gender stereotypes for a man,” she said. “Sexual harassment is first and foremost an abuse of power, whether it’s a priest in the Catholic Church or a woman,” she said. Most of the time, it’s men, Drobac said. “But there are women who have excelled to positions of power who engage in this behavior.”
Case in point: In 2014, a jury in Galveston, Texas, awarded $567,000 (including lost wages and benefits) to policeman James Gist, who filed suit at the 122nd Judicial District Court in Galveston. He alleged that his boss, then-constable Pam Matranga, held his face against her breasts and made derogatory comments of a sexual nature. The total damage sought during final arguments was $350,000, but the jury awarded $500,000, according to Anthony Griffin, attorney for Gist. (The suit was against Galveston County, not Matranga personally.)
Matranga denied the allegations, and said the back and forth was part of the precinct’s workplace culture. Police officers’ sense of humor is often on the crude side, she told MarketWatch in the immediate aftermath of the case, “probably as a safety mechanism for things dealt with daily.” She said people can’t participate in that behavior, and then claim to be offended. Gist said the talk was directed at him in a “non-stop continuous barrage of those types of comments. I told her at one point, ‘That’s not locker room humor. It’s humiliating, offensive and unwanted.’”
“It’s important that we believe all survivors,” Jodi Omear, vice president of communications at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a nonprofit anti-sexual assault organization, told MarketWatch in an email. “The #MeToo movement has given even more people who have suffered sexual violence the courage to come forward and tell their stories. Sexual assault can happen to anyone at any time, and we should take all allegations seriously so that people continue to tell their stories and get the justice they deserve.”
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