After decades/centuries/eons of women being regarded as things to be used and abused by men, with the emergence of #MeToo last year, it seemed like finally the reckoning had come—at least in some especially prestigious fields like Hollywood, media, government, and academia. Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley, etc etc etc. The allegations against these men were numerous, serious, well-documented, and I, at least, believed them. Like a few other wary commentators, however, while I broadly supported the #MeToo movement, there was one hashtag that made me feel just a little bit queasy: #BelieveWomen. It’s not that I don’t believe women in general (I am one), but, both then and now, the idea that we should unequivocally, no question, believe all women no matter their claims struck me as an infantilizing and potentially dangerous slogan that would eventually come back to haunt us. With the recent allegations against Asia Argento and NYU professor Avital Ronell, that time, it seems, has arrived.
Asia Argento was one of the first women to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. As documented in a Pulitzer-winning article in the New Yorker, Argento told journalist Ronan Farrow that, in a hotel room during the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, when she was 21 and he was in his mid-40s, Weinstein forced her legs apart and performed oral sex on her. “I was not willing,” she told Farrow. “I said, ‘No, no, no.’... It’s twisted. A big fat man wanting to eat you. It’s a scary fairy tale.” Oral sex, Farrow reported, was ruined for her. Their relationship, both sexual and professional, lasted for several years after the initial alleged assault. Weinstein says this relationship was consensual; Argento says she was fearful of repercussions had she declined his advances. (Weinstein recently pled not guilty to six felony counts, including sexual assault, unrelated to Asia Argento.)
Considering this history, it may seem especially ironic that in 2013, when Argento was 37, she allegedly performed oral sex on and had intercourse with Jimmy Bennett, an actor and musician who had turned 17 two months before and whom Argento had known since he was a child. In California, where the incident allegedly took place, the age of consent is 18, which means, if prosecutors decide to press charges, that Argento could be charged with rape.
The allegations against Argento emerged on Sunday in a damning story published by the New York Times. According to the Times, Argento—who reportedly had somewhat of a maternal relationship with Bennett—was contacted by Bennett’s lawyers in October 2017, a month after Farrow’s piece came out in the New Yorker. Bennett, according to Times’ journalist Kim Severson, was appalled by what he saw as Argento’s hypocrisy in speaking out about Weinstein, and, in a notice of intent to sue, he accused Argento of committing “sexual battery” and sought damages of $3.5 million. The sexual experience, according to Bennett’s lawyers, was so traumatic that he went through a downward spiral that hindered his ability to work. The parties eventually settled for $380,000 and Argento was, in exchange, given the copyright on a photograph of the couple in bed, their naked torsos showing.
While Argento did not respond to the New York Times request for comment, in a statement reportedly given to Yashar Ali by Argento, she denies that she and Bennett had a sexual relationship and says it was the late Anthony Bourdain’s idea to pay Bennett off.
“Anthony insisted the matter be handled privately and this was also what Bennett wanted,” Argento said in her statement. “Anthony was afraid of the possible negative publicity that such person, whom he considered dangerous, could have brought upon us. We decided to deal compassionately with Bennett’s demand for help and give it to him. Anthony personally undertook to help Bennett economically, upon the condition that we would no longer suffer any further intrusions in our life.”
Dead men, of course, cannot speak, and while it’s certainly possible that Argento’s version of events is the truth, it will take further investigation to determine what really happened. Regardless, not everyone is buying it, and Argento already had plenty of detractors. After Bourdain’s death from suicide in June, conspiracy theories about Argento’s role quickly emerged under the hashtag #JusticeForTony. Online sleuths pointed out that a few days before Bourdain’s suicide in June, she was photographed kissing another man, after which he unfollowed Argento on Instagram. What’s the truth? Who knows. But Unless Argento has some evidence of Bourdain’s involvement, this has gone from a “he said, she said” to a “he said, she said he said.”
Still, it should come as a shock to no one that women can be shitheads too. For an even more dramatic case of women behaving badly, there is Avital Ronell, a famed feminist and NYU professor who was suspended without pay for a year after a Title IX investigation concluded she sexually harassed her former graduate student. According to a lawsuit filed against both Ronell and NYU by Nimrod Reitman, Ronell sexual harassed, assaulted, and stalked Reitman over the course of three years. The claims are disturbing. Ronell, according to the suit, “created a false romantic relationship between herself and Reitman and by threat of, among other things, not allowing him to advance his Ph.D., asserted complete domination and control over his life.” Ronell denies the claims, and, in a statement to the New York Times, said “Our communications —which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment—were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities.”
The story of Ronell and Reitman may very well have remained quiet, but, in May, a group of well-known feminists, including Judith Butler, wrote a letter to NYU defending Ronell. The letter writers did not have access to the finding of NYU’s investigation, but, they wrote, "We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation," the letter said. "If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed." (Judith Butler has since disavowed the letter, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “In hindsight, those of us who sought to defend Ronell against termination surely ought to have been more fully informed of the situation if we were going to make an intervention.”)
Ronell and Argento aren't alone: In February, California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who was featured on Time magazine's #MeToo Person of the Year cover, was accused by two men of inappropriate sexual conduct. The allegations against these women are shocking because, so often, we think of women as victims and men as perpetrators. And the statistics back that up: According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 96 percent of women who report sexual assault or rape point to men as their abusers. Women committing murder or rape or assault makes news; men doing it is just another Tuesday. But when it comes to harassment and assault, the truth, like most things, is more nuanced. According to the 2013 National Crime Victimization Survey, when 40,000 households were polled about rape and sexual violence, 38 percent of the victims were men. These statistics were so surprising to Lara Stemple, the director of UCLA’s Health and Human Rights Law Project, that she dug into the data, looking at surveys on sexual violence from large-scale federal agencies. The results of this study were published in 2016, and Stemple summarized the findings in Scientific American:
For example, the CDC’s nationally representative data revealed that over one year, men and women were equally likely to experience nonconsensual sex, and most male victims reported female perpetrators. Over their lifetime, 79 percent of men who were “made to penetrate” someone else (a form of rape, in the view of most researchers) reported female perpetrators. Likewise, most men who experienced sexual coercion and unwanted sexual contact had female perpetrators.
We also pooled four years of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data and found that 35 percent of male victims who experienced rape or sexual assault reported at least one female perpetrator. Among those who were raped or sexually assaulted by a woman, 58 percent of male victims and 41 percent of female victims reported that the incident involved a violent attack, meaning the female perpetrator hit, knocked down or otherwise attacked the victim, many of whom reported injuries.
Stemple is a long-time feminist. Aware that her data might be spun as an anti-feminist attempt to discredit women’s narratives, Stemple and her co-authors write: "A focus on female perpetration might be skeptically viewed as an attempt to upend a women's rights agenda focused on male-perpetrated sexual victimization. But attention to female perpetration need not negate concern about other forms of abuse. Moreover, a close look at sexual victimization perpetrated by women is consistent with feminist imperatives to undertake intersectional analyses, to take into account power relations, and to question gender-based stereotypes.”
And that, I think, is the takeaway here: Question gender-based stereotypes. We don’t know what exactly happened between Asia Argento and James Bennett, just as we don’t know exactly what happened between Asia Argento and Harvey Weinstein or Avital Ronell and Nimrod Reitman. It’s possible all of it is true, or none of it, or, more likely, there’s some mixture of guilt and innocence across all parties involved. What we do know—or, at least, what we should know—is that both sexes can have all the virtues, flaws, and complexity inherent in our species. Why should we #BelieveWomen any more than we #BelieveMen? Perhaps, instead, we should reserve judgment and look for evidence. Is there a pattern of abuse? Have multiple accusers come forth? Is there documentation to back up either the claims or the denials? Lies, deceit, and self-delusion are not gendered qualities; they are human qualities, and women are not angels. They—we—are simply human. That some of us behave badly should surprise exactly no one.