Predominantly Male Perpetrators
Jimmy Bennett can’t drive, so a family member dropped him off at Asia Argento’s hotel in May 2013. Legal documents leaked to the New York Times allege that Argento gave him alcohol and sexually assaulted him. Bennett was 17, Argento 37. They had met when Bennett was seven, and cast as Argento’s child in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which she also directed. They seem to have had an unnerving habit of referring to one another as mother and son.
Bennett brought a lawsuit against Argento, who denies his claims, soon after the New York Times and the New Yorker exposed a slew of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Argento was among his accusers, saying that Weinstein raped her at the Cannes Film Festival when she was 21. In the months since, she has been an outspoken advocate for sexual abuse victims and a visible leader in the #MeToo movement.
The allegations against Argento come on the heels of a similar scandal in academia. Avital Ronell, who teaches philosophy at New York University, has been accused of sexual harassment by Nimrod Reitman, a former graduate student. An account of Reitman’s lawsuit against Ronell and NYU was published in the New York Times. It included emails from Ronell to Reitman in which she addressed him as ‘Sweet cuddly Baby’ and ‘cock-er spaniel’. A lengthy investigation by NYU found Ronell responsible for sexual harassment and suspended her for the coming academic year. A mini-scandal followed when a number of writers and academics signed a letter defending Ronell.
Weinstein’s lawyer issued a statement accusing Argento of ‘stunning hypocrisy’ and suggesting that Bennett’s account undermines the credibility of all the allegations against Weinstein. ‘Do the claims against Asia Argento invalidate the #MeToo movement?’ the Los Angeles Times asked. The philosopher Kate Manne commented: ‘Why is it that the fact an abusive man was himself abused is so often used to excuse his bad behaviour, and yet the fact an abused woman goes on to be abusive herself is seriously supposed to discredit an entire movement aimed at exposing such abusive power dynamics and structures?’
The disturbing evidence against Argento and Ronell does not change the reality that sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault are overwhelmingly things that are done by men to women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18.3 per cent of women and 1.4 per cent of men in the United States have been raped; 4.8 per cent of men have been 'made to penetrate someone else' (usually a woman). ‘Across all types of violence, the majority of female victims reported that their perpetrators were male. Male rape victims and male victims of non-contact unwanted sexual experiences reported predominantly male perpetrators.’
Both Bennett and Reitman have described ongoing emotional distress and professional stagnation. They deserve our sympathy. And we all deserve a reflective, honest public conversation about the ways that our culture’s adulation of strength, contempt for vulnerability and enforcement of masculinity not only encourage young men to perpetrate sexual violence, but can prevent them from coming forward when they are victims of it.
It is often said that sexual violence is about power. It also has to be said that sexual violence is about sexualised power, about gendered power, and that those powers are disproportionately held by men, and disproportionately abused by men. This isn’t changed by the saddening gap between the feminism that Argento and Ronnel espoused and the abuse they are accused of.