Asia Argento, the actress, was one of the early accusers of Harvey Weinstein, taking a stand back when it was still potentially dangerous for her career and Weinstein had power. It was courageous, and almost certainly emboldened other women who stepped forward to denounce Weinstein. Her actions have helped to lead to an open conversation about sexual abuse and power in Hollywood and the wider workplace.
Asia Argento, the actress, has also been accused of sexually abusing an actor called Jimmy Bennett. Bennett, 20 years younger than Argento, was 17 when he alleges that Argento sexually abused him. The story has led to much debate: some have tried to use it to undermine #metoo, arguing that Argento’s alleged transgressions are reason enough to stop the “witch-hunt” that many commentators consider the movement to be.
However when you unpick the story, the idea that an actress could be guilty of sexually assaulting a young actor makes perfect sense. #metoo was never about just rooting out male predators, but to “raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault in society”. Tarana Burke, its founder, has always made that very clear. It is fair to say that wherever you find a disparity in power, the opportunity for abuse of all kinds is there.
It also makes sense that #metoo has focused on male abusers, because every reputable statistical analysis that I’ve ever come across shows that male abuse is far more prevalent than female abuse, in all walks of life. The problem, as Laura Kipnis said in The Guardian is that:
All we’ve heard for the last 10 months has been tales of women under siege by male sexuality, and cast once again as the morally upstanding gender. Although we don’t know the truth of what happened in these cases, it is good to be reminded that women are occasionally less than virtuous too.
Many of the critics who have complained about #metoo have done so because it has, they would argue, focused on male abusers, and not abusers in general. There doesn’t seem to be the space in public discourse to recognise that the majority of abusers are men, as well as an acknowledgement that people in positions of power, regardless of gender, can abuse that power. Sadly, that level of nuance is increasingly rare. So stories where women abuse their power to assault don’t make the same waves. I’m aware of this. I wrote about being abused by a woman on a night out earlier this year. It is one of the least viewed things I have ever written. You’re aware of this too. Consider how it is reported when a female teacher sexually assaults a pupil compared to when a male teacher does the same thing. We have all seen a television programme where a female teacher talks about the student that “charmed” her and it is always produced in a way that makes her seem sympathetic. I’m willing to bet that you couldn’t even conceive of the inverse. I’ll give you an idea of how perverse it would seem.
Teacher: I met Martha at the beginning of May, 2014. I was 29 and she was 17. She came into my classroom, she introduced herself and she asked for my number. We text back and forth for 3 and a half weeks. The last week of texting, it was a little bit more flirtatious. In one of the text messages, I explained that I was tired and then she did reply back: “I give good massages” and I said “oh really? That would be nice.” I didn’t think it was wrong. It never once felt like I was talking to a child. I wasn’t thinking “wait a minute, I’m a teacher, because I felt this was all happening outside of school. We decided to meet up; she came over to my house at 3 o’clock in the morning. There’s a knock at the door: I let her in and then (teacher has a big smile on his face)… we did go immediately to the bedroom and one thing led to another from there.
Preposterous right. We would never give that teacher the time to tell his story. we certainly wouldn’t portray him as the victim and Martha as some kind of teenaged predator, and yet…
All I’ve done is use the words in this opening and flip the genders. That teacher abused her position. The boy is a victim. Those are the facts, but the show would have you believe in its presentation that the opposite is true. It is this kind of framing that does much to undermine #metoo. This story and stories like it should fall under the tags of #metoo and #timesup: there is no place for abuses of power, regardless of gender.
But because that is not the way that debates are framed, we are left with a case like Asia Argento and Jimmy Bennett. A story of an alleged abuse of power and a cover up that hurts rather than supports the cause.
I don’t know Asia Argento. When I say that I’m not surprised that she has allegedly sexually abused someone, I mean that it shouldn’t shock anyone that a woman in a position of power abused it. That there is shock shows us how much work society still has to do. Men and women abuse their positions of power. If we turn a blind eye to women’s transgressions, stories like Argento’s really will fatally undermine the movement that she helped to amplify.