#MeToo Has Always Been About Power—Not Specific People
In the wake of allegations against Asia Argento and Avital Ronell, activists and experts on sexual abuse say we shouldn't be focusing on victims or villains, but rather on justice and real systemic change.
On Wednesday, actor and musician Jimmy Bennett spoke out on the allegations that Harvey Weinstein accuser Asia Argento had sexually assaulted him in 2013. He was 17 at the time when Argento, his co-star in the 2004 film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, allegedly assaulted him in a California hotel. (The age of consent in California is 18.)
“I did not initially speak out about my story because I chose to handle it in private with the person who wronged me,” Bennett, now 22, said in a statement. “My trauma resurfaced as she came out as a victim herself. 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.”
Bennett also said he “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.” According to documents obtained by the New York Times, Argento agreed to quietly pay him $380,000 after he threatened in November—a month after Argento publicly accused Weinstein of rape—to sue her.
Argento, 42, has denied ever having a sexual relationship with Bennett, and said the decision to pay him was made at the time by her boyfriend Anthony Bourdain, who killed himself earlier this summer. After her statement came out, however, TMZ published a photo of Argento and Bennett and screenshots of text messages allegedly between her and a friend that suggested she did have sex with the teen.
The allegations against the Italian actress and director, who has emerged as a visible figure in the #metoo movement, surfaced just a week after a renowned feminist professor, New York University’s Avital Ronell, was suspended for sexually harassing a male former graduate student. The New York Times’ Zoe Greenberg reported that “a group of scholars from around the world, including prominent feminists,” came to Ronell’s defense, thus raising an important question many still struggle to answer: How should feminists and proponents of the #metoo movement respond when one of their own is accused of sexual misconduct?
It’s something we’ve been grappling with for some time now. When Sen. Al Franken was accused of sexual harassment late last year, for example, a number of women publicly defended him, dubbing him “an honorable public servant.” When former attorney general Eric Schneiderman was accused of physically and psychologically abusing several romantic partners, many looked back at his reputation as a staunch defender of women’s rights.
And this week, when the New York Times’ report on Argento first came out, Rose McGowan—another Weinstein accuser who’s known for being a fierce critic of abuse in Hollywood—suggested people "[b]e gentle.”
“None of us know the truth of the situation and I'm sure more will be revealed," she wrote in a tweet that’s since been deleted.
Weinstein’s attorney Ben Brafman also weighed in, noting that this recent development revealed “a stunning level of hypocrisy.”
In fact, numerous media outlets have published thinkpiece after thinkpiece after thinkpiece this week exploring how Argento’s shocking assault allegations could potentially impact the #metoo movement. Writer Danielle Tcholakian summarized some of her angst over Argento for the Daily Beast as such: “When Bennett’s accusations first surfaced, I struggled. I had become so defensive of this woman I didn’t even know, this stand-in for all the women whose stories I had listened to, stories I slaved over, taking forever to report, because I was determined not to let them experience the response she had gotten.
“There are no perfect victims, after all—the ones I spoke to were rarely an exception to that rule,” Tcholakian continued. “The thing we talk about less often, but which is equally true, is that there are rarely perfect villains, either.”
As many have pointed out, the #metoo movement—which launched in 2006 but gained widespread media attention recently with the sheer number of people coming forward to share their stories of being sexually abused by high-profile men—was never about any one individual. On Monday, #metoo founder Tarana Burke tweeted that this public reckoning with the way society deals with sexual violence and harassment “is less about crime & punishment and more about harm and harm reduction.
“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,” she continued.
It’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening with one person who’s been at the forefront of this movement, says Carly Mee, interim executive director at SurvJustice. “But it was never about just one person, it was about everyone,” she tells Broadly. “The issue of sexual violence and sexual harassment isn’t going away until we do something about it. And the focus should really be about reducing the overall harm that those issues cause survivors. It’s about survivors as a whole.”
But Mee admits she’s not surprised by some of the conversations the allegations against Argento have ignited because society mostly still struggles to understand how nuanced sexual violence is. “We want to believe survivors, but then people are like, ‘Well, that’s messy because she’s a survivor.’ I think that’s really the key point: There’s no perfect victim. There can be survivors who also do really bad things on a number of levels.”
"The focus should really be about reducing the overall harm that those issues cause survivors. It’s about survivors as a whole.”
Sexual violence happens in many different spheres to many different people, Mee continues. “We can’t focus too much on defining victims versus perpetrators because it all blends together. We need to focus more on: here’s this specific action that we can hold people accountable for, and how can we make larger policy changes to address this problem in the future.”
Though the news of Argento’s alleged behavior may be disheartening, Mee adds, it also serves as a reminder that we cannot idealize any one individual associated with this movement, no matter who they are.
In many ways, the biggest impact of the public outpouring of #metoo stories over the last nine months has offered people the language and courage they need to share their own experiences. Even Bennett said he was compelled to confront his alleged abuser after she came forward with her own #metoo story.
“Many survivors credit #MeToo [with] removing shame and stigma associated with their stories,” says Amanda Nguyen, CEO and founder of national civil rights nonprofit Rise. “Though this has helped remove several barriers for survivors and has allowed them to make the first step toward finding justice and reconciliation, we still have a lot of work to do as a society. We’ve only just begun to open the door to reveal decades of systemic sexual violence and harassment that large institutions have covered up or turned a blind eye to.”
Certainly, there has been a shift toward publicly holding some people accountable: Earlier this summer, for example, Weinstein was indicted on several sex crimes. At the same time, however, many people continue to support President Trump, who’s been accused of sexual assault and harassment by at least 19 women; R. Kelly continues to tour nationally despite numerous allegations of abusing women and girls; and disgraced Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, who paid millions of dollars to settle various sexual harassment lawsuits, is still getting airtime.
Until serious repercussions are handed out across the board, advocates say there won’t be real systemic change.
“As long as these perpetrators continue to hold positions of power and control, we have not started believing survivors or taken their stories and accusations seriously enough as a society,” Nguyen says. “I am optimistic that this generation will see a world free from sexual violence, but in order for that to happen, we need to remove the power from the crime, which we have not yet accomplished. The best we can do to help prevent sexual violence is reform our laws.” (Currently, Nguyen is working to pass the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights in every state, which would guarantee equal protection under the law for survivors who have experienced sexual assault and, among other things, ensure rape kit procedures are fair and efficient.)
Mee agrees, pointing out that there are many other areas outside of Hollywood, including college campuses and labor industries, that have yet to garner similar attention when it comes to tackling these systemic issues. She points to Title IX policy changes enacted by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as just one instance of how survivors at the campus level are being undermined. “I haven’t heard many celebrities speaking out about that,” Mee says.
Instead of focusing so much on how the allegations against one person within the movement will impact this work, Mee says she’d love to see these discussions evolve into more action. For example, one larger issue is that many universities are about to enter what survivor advocates call “The Red Zone”—the time of year in the fall freshman semester when campus sexual violence is most likely to occur.
“I think people need to pull their heads out of the sand and look around,” Mee says, “because there are so many issues that are out there, and you just need to grab one.”