The news that actress-director Asia Argento, one of #MeToo’s most visible leaders, is herself facing an accusation of sexual misconduct has thrown members of the movement for a loop, as they try to absorb the latest wrinkle in an already complicated saga.
Some say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach. Others say they’re downright mad at Argento for not being forthright about the accusation early on. Almost all have raised concern about the future of the movement.
“I’m upset that she elected to emerge as a champion of a movement that relies overwhelmingly on our credibility,” Drew Dixon, who in December accused music mogul Russell Simmons of rape, told TheWrap. “It feels disingenuous and hypocritical and unfair to the rest of us who are relying on strength in numbers.”
Dixon was among the 45 Silence Breakers who, in July, signed a letter of solidarity with Argento, defending her from online trolls following the suicide death of her boyfriend, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
“I stand by my reasons for signing that letter,” Dixon said. “You should never bully anyone. But she saw all of us rallying around her, and I’m mystified as to why she didn’t find a way to be equally proactive about owning her own complex history here.”
On Sunday, The New York Times reported that Argento, who was one of the first to publicly accuse movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, secretly paid former child actor Jimmy Bennett $380,000 after Bennett accused her of sexual misconduct in the months after she came forward with her story about Weinstein.
According to the claim, Bennett had just turned 17 at the time of the encounter, which took place in a California hotel room in 2013 when Argento was 37. The age of consent in California is 18.
As part of the agreement, reached in April, Bennett, who is now 22, was required to hand over to Argento, now 42, a selfie he took with her in bed, as well as its copyrights.
“I’m mad at her for not coming out with this in the first place,” Paula Williams, who also accused Weinstein of exposing himself to her in 1990, told TheWrap. “I think it discredits the movement. I think some people were waiting for something like this and this could unravel.”
The Times article sent shockwaves through the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, urged people not to allow the accusation against Argento to discredit the larger movement.
“There is no model survivor,” she wrote. “We are imperfectly human and we all have to be accountable for our individual behavior.”
Argento, who has not commented since the accusation came to light, has already seen one of her staunchest supporters distancing herself from her. Earlier Monday, actress Rose McGowan issued a statement on Twitter saying: “I got to know Asia Argento ten months ago. Our commonality is the shared pain of being assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. My heart is broken. I will continue my work on behalf of victims everywhere.”
In a later tweet, McGowan added, “None of us know the truth of the situation and I’m sure more will be revealed. Be gentle.”
“She has been through so much, I would not be surprised if that resulted in some real confusion around sexual boundaries,” Louise Godbold, who also survived sexual assault by Weinstein, told TheWrap of Argento. “However, if there is ever a power differential (in this case age and maturity) and the person without power feels coerced or obligated into sex, that is not okay.”
Godbold, a trauma specialist working with sexual assault survivors, noted that society “cannot have double standards” when it comes to accusations of sexual misconduct. However, she said she wasn’t convinced that the comparisons between Argento and Weinstein are fair.
“His was a decades-long, systematic, cynical and callous abuse of women,” she said. “We must not lose sight of the fact that Asia can be a victim in one situation and a perpetrator in another. They do not cancel each other out.”
The accusation against Argento has sparked renewed concern and confusion over what is the appropriate response to an accusation of sexual misconduct. For months, critics and supporters of the #MeToo movement have raised questions about the lack of due process for the accused and whether or not every person coming forward should be automatically believed. Argento’s case is the first time a prominent accuser is now in the accused seat.
“Obviously you have to wait for all the facts to come out,” Dixon said. “But there has been pushback about believing the accusations and not hiding behind the details. So it does ring hypocritical to ask for that process now. It’s very upsetting.”
The question now is what effect, if any, will the accusations against Argento have on the movement as a whole.
“There’s no question this is going to have a big impact,” Richard Levick, chairman of crisis management firm Levick, told TheWrap. “If accusations are the new proof, then this was bound to happen.”
According to Levick the problem could be compounded by the fact that both Argento and her accuser have opted not to comment.
“Her not speaking and her lawyer not speaking means there is a single narrative out there,” he said. “And the facts that are out there so far are certainly not helpful.”
But civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom, who stepped down as Harvey Weinstein’s adviser following sexual assault accusations against him in October, said she did not believe the latest accusation will change the landscape.
“When [a movement is] that broad there are always going to be some individual situations that don’t turn out the way that we would expect,” she said. “This is one case and only one case… We should believe victims because it’s very rare that victims are lying. It does happen occasionally but it’s rare.”
If there is a silver lining to all of this, some say, it’s the fact that it could ostensibly encourage more men to come forward.
“I think in many people’s mind, the #MeToo movement was just for women,” crisis manager Susan Tellem of with Tellem Grody PR, Inc. in Malibu, told TheWrap. “This brings it into a whole different light when men can be the recipients of sexual harassment, just like women.”
“This has nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender,” Jason Boyce, who in December accused fashion photographer Bruce Weber of kissing and groping him during a 2014 photoshoot, told TheWrap. “It has to do with people in a position of power over another individual. However this should not detract from the #MeToo movement. It should, however, show that this type of abuse is not exclusive to one gender.”