#MeToo takes a hit in Asia Argento underage sex case
The #MeToo campaign has proved an irresistible force since emerging from the carnage of Hollywood's abuse and harassment scandal -- dominating the conversation on sexual misconduct.
But it finds itself facing its own backlash following abuse claims against Italian actress Asia Argento, one of its leaders and an early accuser of disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that Argento, 42, paid actor Jimmy Bennett $380,000 in hush money after having sex with him in Los Angeles hotel in 2013, when he was only 17 -- and still underage.
Argento has denied the allegations, dismissing them as part of "a long-standing persecution," but faces the possibility of losing her job as a judge on TV talent show "X Factor Italy."
The case has cast a pall over #MeToo, already under fire from those who say it has ruined the lives of numerous powerful men on the basis of accusations that are rarely vindicated by the judicial process.
Argento became a powerful #MeToo voice after accusing Weinstein of raping her when she was 21 in his hotel room in 1997 during the Cannes film festival.
Tarana Burke, founder of the movement named by Time magazine as its 2017 "Person of the Year," is acutely aware of the tricky terrain #MeToo now finds itself negotiating.
"People will use these recent news stories to try and discredit this movement -- don't let that happen," she tweeted.
'No model victim'
She said there was no such thing as a "model survivor," adding: "We are imperfectly human and we all have to be accountable for our individual behavior."
Actress Rosanna Arquette, another early Weinstein accuser, called for understanding for Argento, appearing to believe that the Italian could be both victim and aggressor.
She called the timing of the story "suspect" but added that it did not take away the fact that "Asia was still raped by Harvey Weinstein."
"I know many many rape and trauma survivors who act out sexually. The wounds they carry run deep. I pray for them," Arquette tweeted.
Argento is seen as a controversial figure, with a complex personal story and a traumatic recent history marked by the suicide in June of her partner, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
Monica Hesse, who specializes in gender issues, wrote a commentary for the Washington Post positing a disparity between the real-life complexity of sexual abuse and the stories we tell that often reduce the players to "victim," "attacker," "innocent" or "monster."
"Punish Argento, if the legal system requires it. Ask difficult questions regarding how to think about victims who are also abusers," Hesse wrote.
"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."
Good news for Weinstein?
It is probably too early to know if #MeToo will emerge unscathed from Argento scandal, but that hasn't stopped vested interests capitalizing with their own spin on the facts.
"This development reveals a stunning level of hypocrisy by Asia Argento, one of the most vocal catalysts who sought to destroy Harvey Weinstein," the mogul's lawyer Ben Brafman said.
He expressed shock at the "sheer duplicity" of Argento's conduct, arguing that it demonstrated how poorly the allegations against Weinstein had been vetted.
This leading light of the New York bar has been making the case that the scandal weakens the Manhattan prosecution of his client for rape and other sex crimes against three women.
Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University and a former prosecutor, thinks Brafman is getting carried away.
He argues that while the Argento case is "interesting and thrilling" -- and could even cause problems for #MeToo -- it has nothing to do with Weinstein.
Gershman said he expected the lawyers going after the veteran producer to be especially careful, following the embarrassment of the failed Dominique Strauss-Kahn prosecution.
A controversial French politician and former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexual assault and attempted rape by a hotel maid in 2011.
The charges were dismissed at the prosecution's request after serious doubts emerged over the alleged victim's credibility and inconclusive physical evidence.
"They would not want that to happen again and my guess is that they have been extra careful in their investigation and in examining the background of their accusers," Gershman said.