Until this week, Asia Argento was one of the most powerful advocates for the #MeToo movement. In May, she put sexual predators in the film industry on notice, proclaiming, “we know who you are, and we are not going to allow you to get away with it any longer.”
Then the New York Times reported that Argento had been accused of sexual assault by Jimmy Bennett, a young former co-star. And when the actress responded to those allegations in a statement on Tuesday, that #MeToo advocate was nowhere to be found.
“I have never had any sexual relationship with Bennett,” Argento said in the statement, sent to journalist Yashar Ali. “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 and who had previously undertaken legal actions against his own family requesting millions in damages — unexpectedly made an exorbitant request of money from me.”
On Wednesday, TMZ released a photo apparently showing Bennett and Argento shirtless in bed together, and texts, purportedly from Argento, admitting to sex with Bennett. Later that day, Bennett made his first public statement about the case, telling the Hollywood Reporter he did not speak out earlier “because I was ashamed and afraid to be part of the public narrative.”
Argento’s statement on Tuesday shares uncomfortable parallels with statements made by high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct as part of the #MeToo movement.
From Donald Trump to Bill Cosby, powerful men accused of sexual misconduct, or their representatives, have frequently chosen to respond by denigrating their accusers. By smearing the women who have accused them as liars or gold diggers, these men damage the reputations of their accusers and contribute to a climate in which survivors of sexual misconduct are afraid to come forward.
Everyone deserves the right to respond to allegations, but Argento, one of the most prominent spokespeople for the #MeToo movement, should be well-versed in the potential impact of such responses. When she issues a statement that sounds like it could come from Cosby’s defense team, it’s doubly disheartening.
In response to sexual misconduct allegations, powerful men have frequently smeared their accusers
Perhaps the most famous example of a man firing back with insults when accused of sexual misconduct is President Donald Trump. “Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” he said of his accusers in a speech in October 2016. “All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.”
After restaurant owner and former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos stated publicly that Trump had kissed and touched her without her consent, Trump’s campaign released a statement by her cousin John Barry, which accused Zervos of badmouthing Trump as a way to get famous. “I can only imagine that Summer’s actions today are nothing more than an attempt to regain the spotlight at Mr. Trump’s expense,” Barry said. Zervos responded by suing Trump for defamation.
Trump is not the only person to respond to sexual misconduct accusations with accusations of his own. In a January interview with far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, actor Steven Seagal said that women who had accused him of sexual misconduct had “lied and been paid to lie about me without any evidence, any proof, any witnesses.” He added that “40 percent” of #MeToo claims were false and that “there is a whole force of people gathering around the world now putting in lots of money and lots of time” into false claims of sexual misconduct.
Sometimes it’s the associates or representatives of the accused who make the counter-accusations. At Bill Cosby’s retrial for sexual assault in April, one of his attorneys called his accuser Andrea Constand a “pathological liar” and “con artist” who had only accused him for money. Another Cosby attorney said of model Janice Dickinson, who had testified that Cosby assaulted her, “It sounds as if she slept with almost every single man on the planet.”
Meanwhile, Roy Moore’s sister, Nancy Barksdale, said that the women who had reported that the senatorial candidate had pursued them when they were teenagers were lying, and implied they were part of his opponent’s efforts to hurt his campaign.
“I think it was all lies. I’ve never in my 64 years on earth seen such a dirty-run campaign by the opponent,” she said. “Every single woman is lying.”
Argento’s statement does a disservice to survivors
Everyone deserves the right to respond publicly to public allegations made against them, but when those responses impugn the character of those who come forward, they can have devastating effects. Zervos’s suit against Trump, which is ongoing, offers a clear explanation of these effects.
“Mr. Trump knew that his false, disparaging statements would be heard and read by people around the world, and that these women, including Summer Zervos, would be subjected to threats of violence, economic harm, and reputational damage,” the suit says. “Mr. Trump knowingly, intentionally and maliciously threw each and every one of these women under the bus, with conscious disregard of the impact that repeatedly calling them liars would have upon their lives and reputations.”
The suit also says that Zervos’s restaurant lost business as a result of Trump’s comments.
In her statement, Argento essentially paints Bennett as a grifter. She attempts to discredit him by writing that he took “legal actions against his own family,” presumably referring to a lawsuit referenced in Kim Severson’s New York Times article about the allegations.
According to Severson, Bennett said in that suit that his parents had cheated him out of $1.5 million, kept his possessions, and barred him from their family home. That case was settled in 2014, years before Bennett threatened to sue Argento.
Her statement implies that this lawsuit was frivolous, but the suit, filed when Bennett was still a teenager, could also be read as a report of child abuse by a young actor; Bennett would not have been the first child star to have parents who misspent or co-opted his earnings.
Argento also accuses Bennett of using her to extort money from her boyfriend, the late Anthony Bourdain. Bennett knew that Bourdain, a television personality and author, “was a man of great perceived wealth and had his own reputation as a beloved public figure to protect,” Argento writes. “Anthony was afraid of the possible negative publicity that such person, whom he considered dangerous, could have brought upon us.”
Cases of sexual misconduct can be difficult to discuss publicly because they often lack witnesses — what’s left are two people’s diametrically opposed versions of events. It’s natural that people who believe they have been falsely accused might want to explain why their accusers might have targeted them.
But by casting doubt on his previous lawsuit and painting him as a destitute and dangerous scammer, without any acknowledgment of the way her words might affect others who come forward about sexual misconduct, Argento does a disservice to the movement she has championed.
Notably, her statement lacks any discussion of this movement or of the lessons she has learned through her advocacy. It’s as though she doesn’t see Bennett’s report as part of #MeToo.
And maybe she doesn’t. But if the movement is to be more than a temporary toppling of a few powerful men, then it needs to represent male survivors as well as female ones, and reckon with the possibility that women, and even women who have done important work on behalf of gender equality, may also have been perpetrators of sexual assault.
By issuing her statement without any apparent consideration of the effect it might have, Argento has set back these efforts. The survivors who have spoken up as part of the #MeToo movement might have expected better from her.