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Asia Argento allegations jolt, but don't derail, #MeToo movement, advocates say

The New York Times reported that the actress, a prominent Harvey Weinstein accuser, sexually assaulted co-star Jimmy Bennett when he was just 17 years old.
by Elizabeth Chuck /  / Updated 

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A report claiming that one of disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein's most prominent accusers paid off a victim of her own could ultimately strengthen the #MeToo movement, advocates say.

"People will use these recent news stories to try and discredit this movement — don’t let that happen. This is what Movement is about. It’s not a spectator sport. It is people generated. We get to say 'this is/isn’t what this movement is about!'" tweeted Tarana Burke, the activist who coined the phrase "Me too" for survivors of sexual assault. "And we won’t shift the culture unless we get serious about shifting these false narratives."

Burke's tweet came a day after The New York Times reported that Asia Argento, the Italian actress and director who was one of the first women to speak out against Weinstein, arranged to pay $380,000 to Jimmy Bennett, a former co-star 20 years her junior who says Argento sexually assaulted him in a hotel room when he was 17. The age of consent in California is 18.

The allegation, which has not been independently confirmed by NBC News, prompted anger and sadness on social media, with fans slamming Argento as a hypocrite, pedophile and rapist.

Fellow actress Rose McGowan, another early Weinstein accuser, seemed to distance herself from Argento, tweeting: "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."

On Monday afternoon, Weinstein attorney Benjamin Brafman slammed the "stunning level of hypocrisy by Asia Argento."

"What is perhaps most egregious, is the timing, which suggests that at the very same time Argento was working on her own secret settlement for the alleged sexual abuse of a minor, she was positioning herself at the forefront of those condemning Mr. Weinstein, despite the fact that her sexual relationship with Mr. Weinstein was between two consenting adults which lasted for more than four years," Brafman said in a statement.

But Samantha Manewitz, a social worker and therapist who specializes in sexual trauma, said the case may point to the messy reality of sexual violence and the cycle of victimization.

"I do think this is a reflection of just how complicated these conversations are — of just how hard it is to find a quote-unquote perfect victim," she said. "They can be a victim in one setting and a perpetrator of violence in another."

"Both things can be true, and we’re not good as a culture at understanding that complexity," she added.

Despite the criticism against Argento, Burke wrote in a tweet that there is "no model survivor" and urged followers to see the development as another dimension of the movement.

"Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn’t change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist or professor of any gender," she wrote. "And we won’t shift the culture unless we get serious about shifting these false narratives."

Experts agree that the latest allegation doesn't necessarily undermine the #MeToo movement, but rather, potentially highlights how systemic sexual misconduct is.

"#MeToo has always been bigger than one case or one story. It is about the widespread impact of sexual harassment, assault and abuse in our culture," said Laura Palumbo, a certified sexual assault counselor and communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "The fact that this report is not only coming forward against someone who also reported their own abuses, but who is also speaking from the point of view of a male, is really important, because those voices are so often silenced too."

According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, one out of every 10 rape victims is male, and about 3 percent of American men have experienced a rape or rape attempt.

Bennett claimed in documents obtained by the Times that a 2013 hotel encounter with Argento — someone he said he had thought of as a mentor and mother figure — left him so traumatized that his work and mental health suffered afterward.

Argento hasn't commented since the Times story was published. A lawyer for Bennett said his client declined to comment to NBC News.

The two appeared to stay close in the years afterward, posting affectionate messages to each other on social media. It wasn't until Bennett saw Argento standing up as a champion for survivors of sexual assault in the wake of the Weinstein revelations that the alleged hotel encounter became too much for him to bear, and prompted him to file an intent to sue, Bennett's lawyer wrote, according to the Times.

That doesn't necessarily suggest the claim isn't credible, Palumbo said, adding that there's "a wide range of normal reactions" that survivors feel.

"There's a misperception that if harm really happened, then that relationship would end," she said. "When someone experiences abuse, it's not something they know how to react to. It's not something they're prepared for, and many times, it's so difficult to come to terms with, the easiest thing to do is just to keep going with what's normal."

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