#MeToo movement reckons with alleged hypocrisy after Asia Argento accused of sexual abuse

What happens when a vocal activist railing against abuse of power faces those same allegations herself?

'People can simultaneously be someone who causes harm and is harmed,' says sexual violence educator

The #MeToo movement faces a challenging moment this week after the New York Times reported that Asia Argento — among the first and most outspoken accusers of Harvey Weinstein — settled a sex assault complaint herself involving a minor. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

What happens when a vocal activist railing against abuse of power faces those same allegations herself?

That's the situation facing the #MeToo movement this week after the New York Times reported that Asia Argento — among the first and most outspoken women who accused film mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault — settled a sex assault complaint against her involving a minor last year. 

It's a challenging moment for the movement that united women across the globe this past year and toppled dozens of high-profile figures amid allegations of sexual misconduct. 

"A leader in the #MeToo movement having something like this in her background doesn't look great for the #MeToo movement," Kim Severson, the Times reporter behind the story, said from Atlanta.

Argento and Anthony Bourdain, seen attending the 2017 Emmy Awards, were a couple at the time of his death in June. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

While reporting on the death of American travel host and chef Anthony Bourdain, who had been dating Argento, Severson said she began hearing stories about the Italian actor and director.

During her investigation, Severson said she anonymously received and verified several leaked legal documents pertaining to an alleged settlement between Argento, 42, and actor Jimmy Bennett, her former co-star in the 2004 film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which she also co-wrote and directed.

On Tuesday, Argento denied she had "any sexual relationship" with Bennett. In a statement issued to journalist Yashar Ali, she added that she and the late Bourdain agreed to the financial settlement "to deal compassionately with Bennett's demand for help."

Argento posted an image herself and former co-star Jimmy Bennett to her Instagram account in May 2013. (Instagram)

Investigators in Los Angeles are seeking to talk to Bennett or his representatives about an incident alleged to have occurred at a Southern California hotel in 2013, when Bennett was 17, Los Angeles County sheriff's Capt. Darren Harris said Monday. The age of consent in California is 18.

Bennett, now 22, "does not wish to comment on the documents or the events" at this time, according to a statement from his lawyer.

Attorney Benjamin Brafman, seen at left with his client Harvey Weinstein in May, issued a statement that blasted Argento, among the most outspoken accusers of the former film mogul. (Steven Hirsch/Reuters)

Meanwhile, Harvey Weinstein's criminal attorney Ben Brafman blasted Argento for "hypocrisy" in a statement Monday. 

"This development reveals a stunning level of hypocrisy by Asia Argento, one of the most vocal catalysts who sought to destroy Harvey Weinstein," Brafman said. 

Weinstein has been indicted on charges involving three women, but the cases do not include Argento.

The allegation against Argento is "definitely a challenge for the [#MeToo] movement, and we'll see whether it rises to the occasion," said Judith Taylor, a sociology and gender studies professor at the University of Toronto.

"The movement has an opportunity to expand its scope and to validate men, and if they don't take that up, well, that could have dire consequences for them."

Tarana Burke, the activist who founded #MeToo more than a decade ago, reiterated on Monday that difficult and uncomfortable conversations about "power and humanity and privilege and harm" is exactly what the movement is about.

Change can only happen, she said via social media, "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."

That sentiment is echoed by sexual violence educator Farrah Khan, who feels this latest development doesn't harm #MeToo. Rather, it underlines the movement's central notion of focusing on the voices and stories of survivors of sexual violence, she said.

"That's the goal of the #MeToo movement: it's to ensure the voices of survivors are heard, seen and believed," said Khan, manager of Ryerson University's Consent Comes First, office of sexual violence support and education.

"This also allows us to have a complicated conversation: that people can simultaneously be someone who causes harm and is harmed. We need to have that conversation about what does it look like to support someone, but still call them in," she said.

Argento, seen at left alongside Cannes Film Festival jury member Ava Duvernay, spoke out against Weinstein during the closing ceremony of this year's event. (Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Hollywood personalities have undoubtedly been vocal proponents of #MeToo. But grappling with sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is an issue that goes way beyond Hollywood, noted Severson, who was part of the wider New York Times team that earned a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.

"Social movements are big unruly things, and people are human and imperfect. But I think there's no denying that we're at a real cultural moment," she said.

With files from Tashauna Reid and The Associated Press