The New York Times reported on Sunday that actress and director Asia Argento, one of the most powerful voices in the takedown of Harvey Weinstein and in the #MeToo movement more broadly, recently paid $380,000 to settle her own case of sexual assault. Jimmy Bennett, an actor and musician, accused Argento of assaulting him in a hotel room in 2013, when he was 17 and she was 37. As the #MeToo movement approaches its anniversary, this feels like one of the queasiest revelations it has produced.
In October, Argento spoke on the record with Ronan Farrow in his first blockbuster New Yorker story about Weinstein. Argento met Weinstein in the late 1990s, when she was the 21-year-old star of a crime drama distributed by Weinstein’s Miramax. Their first encounter took place at a hotel room on the French Riviera where she had been told Miramax was throwing a party. Instead, a producer led her into an empty hotel room where Weinstein was waiting for her. He performed oral sex on her against her will and later laughed at her when she told him she wasn’t a whore.
The power of Argento’s story was amplified by how forthcoming she was about the complicated nature of her relationship with Weinstein. After that first assault, she continued to see Weinstein socially and had multiple consensual encounters with him over the next four years. She said she worried he would ruin her career if she didn’t submit, and she felt indebted to him in other ways over the years; later, for example, Weinstein offered to pay for her child’s nanny. Farrow wrote that Argento “insisted that she wanted to tell her story in all its complexity.” The fact that she was so honest about not being a “perfect victim”—that hers wasn’t the kind of neat narrative that the culture at large has historically demanded before taking such accusations seriously—shed light on the complex power dynamics often involved in sexual misconduct. But now, it seems, she was withholding some important and knotty information.
Bennett, now 22, appeared as a child actor in Argento’s 2004 film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. He was 7 when he was cast in the story of a troubled prostitute and her son. In the movie, Argento’s character dresses Bennett’s character as a girl, and he is eventually raped. (The movie was based on a supposedly quasi-autobiographical novel by J.T. Leroy, later revealed to be a persona created by a writer named Laura Albert.) For years after filming, the actors referred to each other fondly on social media as mother and son. On May 9, 2013, they reunited at a hotel in California, where the age of consent is 18. “Waiting for my long lost son my love @jimmymbennett,” she posted on Instagram. The Times’ reporting is based on documents exchanged by lawyers for Bennett and Argento, leaked to the paper by an “unidentified third party.” (The NYT report is penned by food correspondent Kim Severson, who has reported on sexual harassment within the restaurant world.)
That mother-son dynamic is one of several revelations that make this story so sickening and confusing. It is not news that abusers have often been abused themselves and that victimhood does not signify sainthood. But rarely has the evidence been so public and so stark.
The parallel nature of the alleged predations is shocking in its precision. Both Argento and Bennett started their careers as child actors. Argento said the first encounter with Weinstein took place in a hotel room in which she had been strategically isolated; the Bennett documents say he arrived at the hotel room with a family member whom Argento asked to leave. Argento told Farrow that Weinstein forced her into receiving oral sex, and Bennett’s account said Argento did the same. (Argento told Farrow that oral sex had been ruined for her.) In both cases, most importantly, the alleged victim felt professionally subordinate to a more powerful abuser—and felt that potential work was being dangled as a reward for sexual cooperation. Later on the same day that Argento assaulted Bennett, she posted a picture of them together on Instagram, with the caption “jimmy is going to be in my next movie and that is a fact, dig that jack.”
That theme of professional indebtedness may have played into the fact that both victims stayed in touch with their abusers in ways that could undermine their own public narratives. A month after his alleged assault, Bennett tweeted “Miss you momma!!!!” at Argento, with a picture of a bracelet she had given him. The documents suggest that the alleged assault precipitated “a spiral of emotional problems” for Bennett, as the Times put it. His income dropped from $2.7 million in the five years before the assault to $60,000 a year afterward, although that was the same time period in which he was navigating the shift from child actor to adulthood—a rocky career transition even under normal circumstances.
It’s likely, of course, that there are elements in both stories that the public doesn’t know about. Argento did not respond to the Times’ requests for comment, although three people familiar with the case confirmed that the documents were authentic. Bennett, who now lives in Los Angeles, declined an interview with the paper. It’s still unclear who exactly opted to go public with Bennett’s story and what motivated them to do so now. But Bennett is said to have asked Argento for $3.5 million in damages in November, apparently bristling as Argento presented herself as spokeswoman against sexual assault. Eventually they agreed that she would pay him $380,000 over the course of a year and a half, starting in April 2018.
Will these new revelations “undermine #MeToo,” as some have fretted? Probably only in corners that were eager to see the movement undermined anyway. Argento’s claims about Weinstein remain highly credible, in part because his list of accusers eventually ballooned to more than 80 women. This story may—and arguably should—affect Argento’s speaking engagements. But it doesn’t affect the truth of her own story, just as her prominence in #MeToo doesn’t affect the truth of Bennett’s. The only thing to do is learn to hold both accounts in our minds at the same time, with all the discomfort that entails. This storyline might be too messy for the movies, but it’s all too believable in the real world.
Update, Aug. 21, 2018: Argento released a statement on Tuesday denying that she had “any sexual relationship” with Bennett. In her account, Bennett requested an “exorbitant” amount of money out of the blue, in part because of his perception that Argento’s boyfriend, Anthony Bourdain, was a wealthy man who would want to protect his reputation. (Bourdain died by suicide in June.) Argento said the couple agreed to “deal compassionately” with Bennett and quietly pay him a smaller amount.