#HimToo: What happens if the aggressor is a woman?
The #MeToo movement is experiencing growing pains as it enters a new phase
Asia Argento came to prominence in the early days of #MeToo with her accusations against Harvey Weinstein. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
It is a depressingly familiar scenario. An aspiring actor or ambitious student claims they were pressurised into having a sexual relationship with a much older, more powerful peer. The accused, who has until now enjoyed an unblemished reputation, responds by ridiculing the allegations. Some of their powerful friends rally around and publicly protest that there is too much at stake to allow a single accusation of sexual impropriety diminish this widely-adored colossus. Hints are dropped that the accuser might be motivated by something other than a desire for justice.
The sordid details of two stories that gripped the US media over the last week are so frequently played out, they’re almost routine. Except this time, those accused of sexual harassment are women.
The first case, recounted in detail in the New York Times, involves the acclaimed academic Avital Ronell. A 66-year-old female professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University, Ronell was found, in an 11-month investigation by the university, to have physically and verbally sexually harassed a male former graduate student, Nimrod Reitman, who is almost 30 years her junior. She has been suspended for the upcoming academic year.
Ronell denied the allegations of sexual contact outright, and countered that her messages were part of a pattern of florid and campy communications
The investigation examined emails in which she referred to him as “sweet cuddly baby,” and “cock-er spaniel”. He claimed that her behaviour included groping, kissing and touching; demands that he sleep in her bed; and constant texts, emails and calls. He said he was intimidated by her into going along with behaviour that ultimately left him feeling violated.
Ronell denied the allegations of sexual contact outright, and countered that the messages were part of a pattern of “florid and campy communications” that characterised their relationship, and which he encouraged and reciprocated. As it happens, both Reitman and Ronell identify as gay.
The other case has the potential to be much more explosive. In the first place, it involves one of the most vocal advocates of the #MeToo movement, and an alleged victim of Harvey Weinstein, the actor Asia Argento. Secondly, it involves an alleged victim who was underage. And finally, most damningly, she is reported to have paid him off, though she stopped short of silencing him. Last week, she denied there was any relationship.
Argento came to prominence in the early days of #MeToo with her accusations against Weinstein. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, she gave a rousing speech describing it as his “hunting ground”, and said he first raped her there in 1997 when she was 21. He claims their relationship was consensual.
So when the New York Times reported last week that Argento had “quietly arranged to pay $380,000” to an actor and musician called Jimmy Bennett, who claims she had sex with him when he was 17 and she was 37, the reactions ranged from confusion, to dismay, to – on the part of Harvey Weinstein, probably – glee.
An anonymous source sent a dossier about the alleged assault, which his lawyers are calling “sexual battery”, to the New York Times, including a selfie of the pair in bed, which has since found its way online. Bennett had threatened to sue Argento, claiming his income had dropped to an average of $60,000 a year – down from $2.7 million in the years before he met her – as a result of the trauma. Police are now reported to be investigating his claims.
These cases – different, and yet strikingly similar – have left the #MeToo movement reeling, grappling with fundamental questions about who it represents, what exactly it stands for, and whether the desire for online justice it has unleashed might actually be a doubled-edged sword.
After Ronell was suspended, a group of leading mostly female academics wrote a letter of support for her, testifying to their “profound and enduring admiration”. “Although we have no access to the confidential dossier”, they wrote, they had “accumulated collectively years of experience to support our view of her capacity as teacher and a scholar.” Some of them, it went on, “know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her”.
The letter got out, and led to a torrent of accusations of hypocrisy, double standards and victim-shaming. In the time-honoured tradition of friends of the very powerful, it seemed to say “we don’t know what happened, but she’s innocent”. If the genders had been reversed, critics suggested, not unreasonably, there would be howls of protest at this naked attempt to smear the complainant.
Similarly, when the allegations against Asia Argento were made public, some of the most vocal supporters of the movement were notably quiet. In a statement issued last week, Argento said that Bennett had “severe economic problems” and had made an “exorbitant request of money from me”. She completely denied that there was any sexual relationship.
Rose McGowan, who has also accused Weinstein of assault, said in a series of tweets: “I got to know Asia Argento 10 months ago. Our commonality is the shared pain of being assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. My heart is broken. I will continue my work on behalf of victims everywhere.”
“None of us know the truth of the situation and I’m sure more will be revealed. Be gentle,” she added.
#MeToo is a spontaneous social force that put an end to the notion that powerful people can get away with sexually aggressive behaviour
Critics pointed out that this call to avoid a rush to judgment was very much at odds with her stance of November 2017, when she tweeted: “It’s quite simple, all who have worked with known predators should do 3 simple things. 1) Believe survivors 2) Apologize for putting your careers and wallets before what was right. 3) Grab a spine and denounce. If you do not do these things you are still moral cowards. #ROSEARMY”.
The question being asked by critics, some feminists and sections of the media is whether #MeToo is now finished, discredited beyond repair by the hypocrisy and double standards of some of its leading advocates? The answer, almost certainly, is no.
Let’s remember first what the movement is not. It is not a political party, an organisation for victims or a single, coherent entity. Rather, it is a spontaneous, global social force that emerged to give victims of sexual harassment a voice, and put an end to the notion that powerful people can get away with indiscriminate, sexually aggressive behaviour.
This is both its greatest advantage, and its most significant challenge. On the one hand, it is unlikely be damaged by accusations of bad behaviour against two individuals, no matter who those individuals are.
On the other hand, #MeToo’s unconstrained and free-flowing nature is at the heart of one of its most troubling aspects. In the courtroom of online justice, where it has played out, there is no innocent until proven guilty. There is no due process or right to a defence.
That is not the fault of the movement itself – it is a product of our culture, and of how social media platforms are designed. They thrive on simplicity; on binary, right-and-wrong narratives; and offer no room for nuance or accountability. It’s not #MeToo’s fault. But it might be what undermines it. If it is to survive, it will need to find new platforms, new more nuanced ways of telling stories.
These two cases also highlight some realities that some feminists have been slow to acknowledge: that consent is a battleground being fought by both genders. That the role of predator is not invariably a male one. That not all victims are female. That the roles of predator and victim may not, in fact, be mutually exclusive. That there is no such thing as the perfect victim: Argento’s sexually aggressive behaviour towards a 17-year-old Bennett is reprehensible if true, but it doesn’t diminish her alleged experiences at the hands of Weinstein.That the role of predator is not invariably a male one. That not all victims are female.
In a statement issued last week after the story had broken, Bennett said he was too “afraid and ashamed” to speak up after the incident happened. “At the time I believed there was still a stigma to being in the situation as a male in our society. I didn’t think that people would understand the event that took place from the eyes of a teenage boy.”
Arguably, the response to his claims, and the reluctance by some to take them seriously, proves he was right: the idea that men also have a right to consent is still taboo.
Then there is the role of the traditional media outlets that took up the #MeToo klaxon from social media so enthusiastically in the beginning, often turning their backs on the need for fairness and balance. The New York Times devoted extensive space to both allegations last week, leaving some observers with the impression that it might be in danger of over-correcting.
As the #MeToo movement enters its more mature second phase, there will be more such growing pains, more questions to be answered, more need for nuance, due process and tough conversations. How these questions are addressed is vital to determining how it evolves, and whether its legacy proves to be an enduring social and cultural revolution, or just a few careers ended in a flurry of salacious headlines.
#MeToo began as an outpouring of stories of harassment, and an expression of frustration with a culture and a legal system that allowed sexual aggression to flourish. It touched many parts of the world, including Ireland, as accusations of workplace bullying were made against the former director of the Gate Theatre, Michael Colgan, and comedian and radio presenter Al Porter.
(The allegations against Michael Colgan did not relate to sexual harassment but to bullying behaviour. Porter resigned from Today FM following allegations of inappropriate conduct. Colgan issued a public apology at the time for “misjudged behaviour”, and Porter also publicly apologised to “anyone I may have genuinely offended”.)
As #MeToo evolves it has to make room for fair hearings, for nuance, for less bellowing from the sidelines and more finding space for understanding in the middle
There are undoubtedly more such stories yet to be told; more moments of reckoning to come. Equally, there are people, of both genders, who will exploit the movement for their own ends.
That’s why, as it evolves from nebulous online movement into social revolution, it has to make room for fair hearings, for nuance, for less bellowing from the sidelines and more finding space for understanding in the middle. Part of that process means acknowledging that everyone – male and female – has a right to the presumption of innocence, and that complainants – male and female – should be heard and shown compassion.
Women may be just as capable of committing acts of sexual aggression as men, but despite these recent allegations, they usually don’t. There is a simple reason why that is, why the majority of those called to account have been male. Harassment in all its forms is never about sex or gender: it’s about power and entitlement, and men tend to have the monopoly on power and entitlement in society.
As long as that continues to be the case, as long as there is inequality in whatever form, we still need #MeToo.