Since last November, when she came out in the New Yorker as a victim of alleged serial rapist Harvey Weinstein, Asia Argento’s name has frequently been cited during conversations around sexual assault. But this past weekend, she was revealed to have a more complicated relationship with abuse and assault than had previously been assumed. According to a report from the New York Times, Argento is not merely a sexual assault survivor, but an alleged perpetrator as well, accused of having forced herself onto the actor and musician Jimmy Bennett when he was 17 years-old. The event reportedly led Argento to agree to pay Bennett nearly $400k earlier this year.
For the many people who had come to respect Argento as an outspoken sexual assault survivor and figurehead within the #MeToo movement, the revelation felt like a betrayal. How could someone so intimately familiar with the pain of sexual violation cause that same harm to another person, let alone a 17-year-old still coming into his own as a sexual being?
One possibility that’s been floated is that Argento’s abuse of Bennett is merely an example of the (somewhat discredited) theory that abuse often warps victims’ sense of normal sexuality, turning them into abusers in their own right. While that dynamic could have contributed to Argento’s actions, I suspect that there’s at least one other factor at play. The toxic messages that we promote about male sexuality — that men are always horny, that sexual attention from an attractive woman is always desirable, that an erection indicates consent — make it difficult for some female abusers to characterize their actions as assault.
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Where do these ideas come from? They’re in movies, in music, in magazines, and even our scientific studies. We’re exposed to 35-year-old research that claims 75 percent of men will say yes to an offer of casual sex with a complete stranger (as opposed to zero percent of women), sociobiology fans who claim that men are naturally non-monogamous and driven to spread their seed as far as possible, and, of course, anecdotes of men who swipe right on every woman who crosses their path on Tinder, casting the widest net possible in pursuit of pleasure. Quips about male sexual behavior position sex as equivalent to pizza — even when it’s bad, it’s good — and argue that women are always capable of getting sex, because men are far too eager to hook up to be picky about their sexual partners.
And these ever present attitudes also shape our understanding of what rape and sexual assault look like when you’re a man. It’s not coincidental that the most commonly discussed violations experienced by men are abuse as a child or abuse from another man (or, in some cases, both); the notion that a woman could even be capable of violating an adult man is wholly in conflict with our norms that dictate that men pursue and women resist.
Besides which, there's plenty of evidence that suggests when men or women are asked about "sexual assault" — as potential perpetrators or victims — they recognize it as bad, but when asked if they've committed or experienced actions that constitute assault, they respond that they have.
Further, when female sexual predators are prosecuted and make it into the news, they’re often viewed more with curiosity and fascination than with disgust. Mary Kay Letourneau, the former schoolteacher who landed in jail after getting pregnant with the child of a middle school student, was the subject of a biopic that hailed her as an All-American Girl and she once hosted a Hot for Teacher night at a local nightclub. Other women who’ve violated their students are similarly romanticized, especially if they’re attractive.
Even as Argento is being labeled a rapist and an abuser by some, others are still positioning her as a dream come true for her victim: Hours after the Times report, it was not hard to find Twitter users dismissing Bennett as “lucky” and ungrateful — less a sexual assault victim than a man who took his supposed good fortune for granted.
In my own life, I’ve seen how these depictions of men as perpetually horny and in pursuit of sex have shaped my own behavior, making me more likely to ignore a man’s hesitation or see it as a sign that I just need to try harder. Signs that I would clearly interpret as a no from a woman can easily be read as a challenge from a man even if you've no intention of being predatory — and I have to assume that, for men who’ve been raised to see the pursuit of sex as a fundamental part of their masculinity, it can be difficult to say no to an erotic offer, even when it’s something you’re not really in the mood for.
It’s the story of male sexuality we see played out over and over in the media, the fantasy hook-up that straight men everywhere would supposedly sacrifice almost anything to enjoy. It’s not hard for me to imagine how a woman like Argento, an actress and model who’s long been celebrated for her beauty, could have convinced herself that she was doing Bennett a favor, granting him access to an experience that other teenage boys around the world might have seen as fantasy come true, even though he did not.
But we need to understand how a teenage boy who’d long viewed Argento as a mother figure might feel violated, confused and yet incapable of rejecting Argento’s advances, unwanted as they allegedly were. We need to talk more about how men can feel just as hesitant and violated as women do, how sex — even sex with a beautiful celebrity — isn’t the ultimate expression of masculinity or male pleasure, how an erection is just a physical response and not an automatic sign that a man is consenting to sex or sexual contact.
We need to talk about these things far more broadly than we do, so that men can better understand their sexual desires and experiences, and to understand that rejecting a woman’s proposition doesn’t make them ungrateful or less of a man. But we also need to talk about these things so that women can comprehend that we, too, can be abusers as well as victims, that our sexual attentions are not always wanted, and that a man saying no to sex isn’t asking us to try harder. He’s saying no, and he should be respected — the same way that anyone else of any other gender or sexual orientation should be respected when they state a sexual boundary.
Lux Alptraum is a Development Producer for Fusion’s "Sex.Right.Now." and the author of "Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal," out in November 2018 from Seal Press.