Nearly a year into the national reckoning over sexual harassment, the New York Times threw a monkey wrench into the dialogue with a bombshell report: Asia Argento, one of Harvey Weinstein’s earliest accusers, was herself accused of sexual misconduct. The Italian actress paid $380,000 to a young actor named Jimmy Bennett who said she assaulted him in a California hotel room when he was 17, a year younger than the state’s age of consent. She has denied the accusations. She never had any sexual relationship with Bennett, she said, and paid him the money he’d requested to avoid “suffering any further intrusions” in her life.
Before, Argento was perceived as a victim. Now, she was — what was she, exactly? Our conversations about sexual misconduct are easier when the players have tidy labels: Victim. Attacker. Innocent. Monster.
Over 24 hours, I watched pundits and advocates try to neaten this case up, with conclusions that might wrangle the story back into something more orderly.
If I was a 17-year-old boy, I would have been thrilled: A harmful conclusion, popular on Twitter.
This woman must be lying about Harvey Weinstein: A disingenuous conclusion, circulated by Weinstein’s attorney.
Do the claims about Asia Argento invalidate the Me Too movement? A straw-man question, posed by the Los Angeles Times, which then quickly dismantled it.
Argento’s alleged actions need to be wrestled with — not because they “invalidate” the movement, but because they’re a part of it. #MeToo was never about what a handful of men did to a handful of women, after all, but about the poison we’re all choking on.
And sometimes the stories are relentlessly, inconveniently messy.
The only conclusion that makes sense at this point is that it’s possible for two awful things to be true at once. As several cultural observers — #MeToo activist Tarana Burke, writer Mark Harris — have pointed out, it’s possible for someone to have a terrible thing done to them and also do a terrible thing. It’s possible to feel pity toward someone and revulsion. In cases of rape or sexual assault, this might be more than theoretical: The reverberations of abuse can linger for years or be passed on to others like a sickness.
Argento says she was assaulted by Weinstein in 1997, when she was 21. Her accuser said she assaulted him 16 years later. In legal documents, Bennett said Argento invited him to meet at a hotel, which is what she (and multiple other women) said Weinstein had done with her. Bennett said she performed forcible oral sex on him, which is what she said Weinstein had done to her. Several of Weinstein’s accusers have said he dangled promises of movie roles as bribes to keep quiet. The same day Argento allegedly assaulted Bennett, she posted a photo of the two of them on Instagram: “Jimmy is going to be in my next movie and that is a fact, dig that jack.”
Later, as Bennett was driving home, legal documents said, he began to feel “confused, mortified and disgusted.” But he still continued to communicate with her in a way that seemed to indicate fondness, just as Argento maintained contact with Weinstein.
All this might add up to a cycle of abuse — a shattered woman’s gnarled, ruinous way of processing what had happened to her. Or it all might just be a nauseating coincidence. Or, if Argento is innocent, did Bennett invent a story specifically to pattern the story she’d told about Weinstein?
Whatever the truth, the similarities wouldn’t cancel out the harm done. They just require us to grapple harder with how we think about victims and perpetrators.
In April, the Pulitzer-winning novelist Junot Díaz wrote a wrenching essay in the New Yorker about being raped as a child, an attack that left him emotionally battered. For a few weeks as this essay circulated, Díaz was heralded as hero for baring his scars.
And then the story became complicated: Two women accused Díaz of harassment. They said that as an adult, he’d used his status as a famous author to berate and forcibly kiss women — graduate students or young authors who feared speaking out could hurt their careers.
Suddenly, Díaz wasn’t a hero but a villain. And some critics took the stance that acknowledging his old pain would negate his alleged victims’ new pain.
Really, what had happened was a whole never-ending saga of pain, a concept that Díaz himself seemed semi-aware of: The title of his New Yorker essay had been “The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.”
Let the stories be complicated. Leave them messy.
Punish Argento, if the legal system requires it. Ask difficult questions regarding how to think about victims who are also abusers.
But let the stories be complicated, because that messiness isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually the only thing. It’s the only way to acknowledge there aren’t neat labels in these cases, only broken humans.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.