Seeing prominent women face #MeToo allegations is uncomfortable. But we should face that unease, not look away from it.
There is something comforting about simple stories. As children, we like books in which there is a hero, a villain, and good triumphs over evil in the end. As adults, we might be tempted to dismiss people we don’t like as irredeemable creeps and fools, brushing over any information that paints them in a more sympathetic light. Straightforward narratives like this are reassuring, because they give us the impression that there is some order and justice in the world. Messy, complex stories, in contrast – tales in which there are no heroes or villains, just people who do both good things and bad things – can be exhausting and painful.
Since the #MeToo movement went viral last autumn, we have seen this attraction to simple stories play out on the world stage. Men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have been cast as monsters, while the many women who came forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault have frequently been depicted as a kind of heroic, avenging army (see Time magazine’s ‘The Silence Breakers’ cover, or the coverage of the 100+ women who made statements at the trial of Larry Nassar). The prevailing narrative of the #MeToo movement has so far been this: powerful man exploits his status to sexually harass or assault people (usually women) more vulnerable than him; powerful man thinks he’s got away with it; powerful man is finally held to account.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this characterisation. Weinstein and Spacey’s alleged behaviour is despicable, and people who speak out about sexual misconduct are undeniably, breathtakingly brave. But relying too heavily on simple narratives can sometimes make us resistant to stories that are more complicated and confusing – such as those in which feminists are the alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault against men. These stories are difficult to hear and read. They are not simple. But if we are going to stay true to the values of the #MeToo movement, it’s essential that we don’t ignore them.
In recent weeks, The New York Times – which helped make public the allegations against Weinstein – has published two stories about prominent feminists facing accusations of sexual misconduct. The first story concerns Avital Ronell, a respected professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University (NYU), who has been found responsible for sexually harassing a male former graduate student.
According to Nimrod Reitman, now 34, Ronell repeatedly kissed and touched him against his wishes, slept in his bed with him, asked him to lie in her bed, held his hand, texted, emailed and phoned him constantly, and refused to work with him if he didn’t reciprocate. Ronell has denied that her interactions with Reitman were inappropriate, but an internal investigation at NYU disagreed, and she has now been suspended from teaching for a year.
This is not a story that fits neatly within the conventional #MeToo narrative. The tiny, birdlike Ronell is a 60-something lesbian who has written extensively about feminist philosophy, while Reitman is a gay man. And yet there is something uncannily familiar about his description of how he felt his relative lack of power – in his case, academic and professional status, rather than physical strength or financial clout – was used against him.
In 2012, he said, he accepted Ronell’s invitation to visit her at her flat. Once he arrived, she allegedly asked him to read poetry to her in her bedroom. “That was already a red flag to me,” he said. “But I also thought, OK, you’re here. Better not make a scene.” That desire not to cause a fuss, in case you make a risky situation worse, is one that will resonate with many women.
The second story challenging our preconceptions about #MeToo is the report, published in The New York Times on 19 August, stating that Asia Argento paid off a young man who accused her of sexually assaulting him when he was below the age of consent. Argento, who says that Weinstein raped her when she was 21, has been one of the #MeToo movement’s most vocal advocates – but according to the newspaper, she also “quietly arranged to pay $380,000 [£297,718] to her own accuser” last November.
Lawyers for Jimmy Bennett, a 22-year-old actor and musician, said in documents seen by The New York Times that he claimed Argento sexually assaulted him in a California hotel room in 2013. Bennett was just 17 at the time of the alleged assault, a year below California’s age of consent, and four years below the legal drinking age in the US. The documents show he said that Argento gave him alcohol, kissed him, removed his trousers and performed oral sex on him, before climbing on top of him to have intercourse.
In a letter sent to Argento’s lawyer in November, a lawyer for Bennett asked for $3.5m (£2.7m) in damages, saying that the fallout from the “sexual battery” had been so traumatic that it damaged his ability to work and threatened his mental health.
Argento has not yet commented publicly on The New York Times report, and Bennett’s lawyer would only say that his client was “focusing on his music”. However, the authenticity of the documents was confirmed by three people familiar with the case.
The allegations against Argento make for disquieting reading, because it is – of course – unnerving to learn that a woman so closely affiliated with the international movement against sexual assault has herself been accused of sexual assault. Like the allegations against Ronnell, the story sits outside the dominant #MeToo narrative of a powerful man exploiting a woman.
And grappling with this kind of story is difficult. It is tiring. It forces us to think in very nuanced ways about how power can potentially be abused, and to acknowledge that – despite the fact that women in England and Wales are five times more likely than men to report sexual assault to police – men are not the only ones who can exploit their authority over others. It demands that we recognise that people can do very good things and still be accused of doing very bad things, and makes us examine our own preconceptions about who can be a perpetrator and who can be a survivor. (The answer, of course, is that one person can be both – but that doesn’t fit comfortably with our hero-villain binary.)
Quite frankly, I’d prefer not to have to contemplate these complexities. If I have to live in a world where #MeToo is necessary, I’d much rather it be a black-and-white world filled only with #MeToo goodies and #MeToo baddies. But that is not the world in which we live. And the whole point of the #MeToo movement is that all allegations of sexual misconduct should be taken seriously, no matter the identity of the accuser or the accused.
If we are to truly honour the spirit of #MeToo, we must listen when feminists are accused of sexual misconduct. If we don’t, the danger is that the movement will be derailed by those who have never believed in it anyway; by people who have been waiting for the chance to leap forward, yelling gleefully: “See, feminists don’t really care about sexual misconduct – they just want to take down men!”
And crucially, the fact that Argento is facing an allegation of sexual assault does not negate her own allegations against Weinstein, or render the work she has done for the #MeToo movement invalid. Neither have Ronnell’s contributions to feminist philosophy been destroyed by the allegations against her.
We can take Reitman and Bennett’s allegations seriously and maintain our faith in the importance of a #MeToo movement led by feminists, because the world is complicated, and many things can be true at the same time. If we don’t, we’re doing the movement a huge disservice.
Update: On 21 August, Asia Argento released a statement strongly denying Bennett’s allegations of sexual assault, and saying the pair had “never had any sexual relationship”.
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