Disposability Politics and the #MeToo Movement
A few days ago, The New York Times broke the story that Italian actress and director Asia Argento, a celebrity leader of the #MeToo movement, paid a $380,000 settlement to her own accuser. Jimmy Bennett, an actor and musician who first met Argento while working on a film together when he was a young child, alleges that Argento sexually assaulted him in a Los Angeles hotel when he was 17 years old. She was 37 at the time, and the age of consent in California is 18.
Argento vehemently denied the accusation in a statement responding to the NYT story, stating that she has never had any sexual relationship with Bennett. She continued on to claim that Bennett demanded money from her and her late partner Anthony Bourdain, threatening their reputations without grounds, and that Bourdain decided to respond "compassionately" by paying him the money.
Today, TMZ published a photo of Argento and Bennett in bed together, lying down and apparently shirtless. The site also released screenshots of texts allegedly exchanged between Argento and a friend, in which Argento says that she and Bennett did have sex but that he initiated the encounter and she did not realize he was a minor at the time. The photo was verified by The Times, but no other news outlets have verified TMZ's screenshots.
Bennett's attorney sent a letter of intent to sue Argento in November 2017, one month after she publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her at age 21 and quickly became one of the famous faces of the #MeToo movement. According to the letter, seeing Argento step forward as a sexual assault survivor triggered Bennett's own trauma surrounding his assault, prompting him to file the lawsuit.
The allegations around Argento continue to develop, and California law enforcement has confirmed that they have opened an investigation on the matter. It may be too soon to have all the facts, but one thing is certain: this case is complicating the rigid perpetrator/survivor dichotomy so prevalent in the #MeToo movement and similar work around justice for sexual assault survivors.
There Is No "Model Survivor"
The reason that allegations of sexual assault against Asia Argento are resulting in such a complicated discourse is that she herself is a sexual assault survivor, and the popular image of survivors is that they are perfectly innocent victims. The idea that a person can be both a victim and perpetrator of sexual assault, particularly when that person is a woman accused of sexually assaulting a boy or man, explodes traditional narratives of sexual assault as a clear-cut crime.
The original founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, took to Twitter in the aftermath of the news to emphasize the importance of accountability. "A shift can happen," she writes, "The movement is making space for possibility. But, it can only happen after we crack open the whole can of worms and get really comfortable with the uncomfortable reality that there is no one way to be a perpetrator...and there is no model survivor. We are imperfectly human and we have to be accountable for our individual behavior." As Burke points out, the concept of a "model survivor" is not only unrealistic but also deeply disturbing due to its implications.
Firstly, the idea of a "model survivor" constricts the bounds of public imagination for what constitutes sexual assault, since it predicates the validity of the survivor's claims on certain behaviors or qualities. If a survivor's identity, history, or behaviors do not match mainstream society's idea of a proper victim, then we dismiss their story as unbelievable or unworthy of attention. Examples abound of survivors failing to meet the "model survivor" standards set by social norms, which, in many cases, are inextricable from rape culture itself. For instance, survivors are often disbelieved for having consensual sexual relationships with their abusers after an assault occurs—which was the case with Argento and Weinstein—though we know that a majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone who knows the victim, and one out of every four assaults is perpetrated by a current or former spouse, partner, or girlfriend/boyfriend.
We saw another classic example of the damaging "model survivor" phenomenon at work when Terry Crews came forward about his own sexual assault. Since he is a man and Black, many people questioned the veracity of his claims. Due to stereotypes propagated by toxic masculinity, we are reluctant to believe that men can be victims of sexual assault. This is doubly true for Black men, who are subjected to particular cultural expectations of hyper-masculinity and racist objectification. Men can be and are victims of sexual assault, too. This is not to say that gender does not play a role in sexual violence: 82% of all juvenile victims and 90% of adult rape victims are women. Those statistics, however, do not invalidate the experiences of survivors who do not identify as women.
Sexual assault is about power and privilege, and there are a million different configurations of identity and circumstances that contextualize this violence. And yet, time and time again, we see the behavior or specific identities of sexual assault survivors used against them to undermine their claims and minimize their trauma. The hard truth is that there is no perfect survivor, no checklist that we can use to divide experiences of sexual violence into easily identifiable categories.
The second problem with the "model survivor" concept is that it ignores the fact that as complex human beings, we can be both victims and perpetrators of abuse.
This is what makes Bennett's allegations against Argento so hard to swallow. As Ruth Graham writes for Slate, "The fact that [Argento] 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." Sexual violence does not always fit into a clean division of victim and perpetrator, and the same goes for abusive behavior in general.
Activists have long recognized that few of us, if any, are entirely innocent of damaging behavior. Movement work is messy for precisely this reason; it is possible to advocate against abuse while at the same time participating in the very systems of oppression that make abusive behavior possible in the first place. Furthermore, living within these systems means that many of us bring our own trauma to the table. As a result, we can (and do) resort to abusive behaviors in an attempt to cope with our own pain, or engage in toxic practices without even realizing it. Our own trauma responses can manifest in ways that inflict further trauma in our communities.
This is not to say that one's own history of abuse excuses abusive behavior. At most, survivors' pain may serve as an explanatory factor that helps us understand why they hurt others; at least, it is a reminder that people are complex and capable of both harming and being harmed. Trauma does not absolve anyone of responsibility for their actions, and the only way to truly eradicate rape culture is by demanding accountability from all of us, regardless of our own histories.
Argento's experiences as a survivor of sexual assault do not excuse her if she did assault Bennett—and given that false reporting for sexual assault is as rare as for any other violent crime, I'm inclined to consider it a very likely possibility. But Bennett's accusations do not invalidate her own accusations against Harvey Weinstein, either. As we move forward in what has been called the "#MeToo Era," we will need to wrap our heads around the painful reality that the abuser and the abused can sometimes be the same person.
Given that perpetrators of sexual abuse and assault inflict so much pain on their victims, it is tempting to dismiss them altogether. The desire to relegate an abuser to the proverbial trash bin is doubled when that person has, as in Argento's case, been held up as a movement leader working against the very injustice that they themselves committed against someone else. Our outrage intensifies with the disgust of this betrayal, which is why the aforementioned writer Ruth Graham calls the Bennett-Argento case "one of the queasiest revelations" produced by the #MeToo movement in the last year.
Given that so many of us have both harmed and been harmed in various ways, however, it seems unlikely that we will be able to continue to build successful social justice movements if we exclude everyone who has ever engaged in any kind of abusive behavior. If Argento did indeed sexually assault Bennett, then she has no business being a highly visible advocate for survivors. That does not mean that she lied about her own experiences of sexual assault, nor that she should be denied the opportunity to heal from her own trauma.
As Kai Cheng Tom writes for Everyday Feminism, "We live in a disposability culture – a society based on consumption, fear, and destruction – where we’re taught that the only way to respond when people hurt us is to hurt them back or get rid of them." If we reject this premise that people are disposable, the question then becomes how we deal with people who have inflicted pain and trauma without treating them as worthless monsters.
Granted, I find it difficult to argue for extending understanding to someone like Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of sexual assault by over 50 women. It's fair to say that empathy has its limits, and that there is a spectrum of abuse on which some people may be beyond the reach of our healing efforts.
It's likely that a majority of people fall somewhere else on the spectrum of harm, though, and so it's worth considering how we might approach justice for sexual assault survivors beyond the disposability paradigm. Restorative justice is a promising possibility, in which communities deal with abuse through focusing on the victim's needs in order to help them and their community heal together from the trauma. Restorative justice functions without criminal intervention, suggesting it could be a successful model for first-time offenders (rather than proven predators like Weinstein.) In addition to healing sexual assault victims in ways that our criminal justice system often can't—such as providing empowering, culturally-specific, and individualized support—restorative justice also works to prevent further assault by involving the entire community. In other words, a restorative justice model for sexual assault works to change the culture of consent and sexual behavior within a group, rather than merely isolate and punish an abusive individual.
The catch, of course, is that restorative justice only works if the victim/survivor of assault chooses it. One of the many problems with the criminal justice system is that it strips survivors of their agency, prescribing punitive solutions that may not actually help the survivor at all. Since sexual assault is at its core about power differentials, any pursuit of justice for survivors must prioritize their agency above all else. Otherwise, seeking justice for sexual assault can end up being as traumatizing as the experience of the crime itself, in which survivors repeatedly experience the loss of control over their own healing process.
As a survivor of sexual assault, I wish that I'd had the option of restorative justice in the aftermath of my own experiences. I never wanted to report, largely due to my suspicion that going to law enforcement would not have given me the healing I needed. I am also fairly certain, however, that the two people who have assaulted me still do not understand what they did. I neither excuse nor accept their ignorance, but I do wonder if the assaults could have been prevented had they been exposed to a restorative justice model that better educated them on consent. At the very least, I want to hope that a restorative justice process would prevent them from committing assault again.
I do not forgive the people who assaulted me. But I also do not believe that they should be thrown in a cage. I want to believe in the possibility of an abolitionist movement for sexual assault survivors, one that seeks transformative justice rather than mere retribution.