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Sexual assault accusation against #MeToo leader Asia Argento rattles movement

Frederick M. Brown, Loic Venance, AFP, Getty Images North America | Split image of musician and former child actor Jimmy Bennet (pictured left) and Italian actress and director Asia Argento

Revelations that Italian actress and director Asia Argento agreed to pay $380,000 to a young actor who accused her of sexual assault has sent shockwaves through the global #MeToo movement, of which she is a leading figure.

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Argento, 42, was among the first women in the film industry to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, detailing her rape and subsequent relationship with the producer in an incendiary article by Ronan Farrow published in The New Yorker last year.

Her account – and those of many other women – inspired the global #MeToo movement, which has encouraged victims of sexual harassment and assault to speak out about their experiences. Since then, Argento has been a vocal advocate for women who have suffered abuse.

However on Sunday, the New York Times revealed that Argento paid $380,000 to Jimmy Bennet, a young rock musician and former child actor who has accused her of sexually assaulting him in a California hotel room in 2013, when he was 17. The age of consent in the state is 18.

The details of the alleged assault, and the settlement reached between Argento and Bennet’s lawyers, were described in documents sent anonymously to the New York Times, including a photo dated May 9, 2013, of the pair in bed.

The scandal immediately rattled #MeToo, raising fears that its credibility would be called into question. Fellow #MeToo ambassador Rose McGowan was quick to distance herself from Argento on Twitter but said she would continue her "work on behalf of victims everywhere".

But supporters of #MeToo argue that the movement is much bigger than Argento.

“She helped launch the movement, but many other women also came forward,” Dr. Emmanuelle Piet, president of the Feminist Collective Against Rape (Le Collectif Feministe Contre le Viol), told FRANCE 24.

Although Piet expressed some scepticism over the settlement between Argento and Bennet, she pointed out that victims are not exempt from victimising others.

“You can be a victim and have abusive behaviour. Just because you’ve been victimised doesn’t mean you won’t do it to others,” she said. “Many aggressors were victims during childhood. Abuse can affect behaviour later on."

Piet argued, however, that Bennet’s accusation against Argento does not negate her own experience of sexual abuse, and should not diminish the #MeToo movement.

“The reason why the movement is so strong is because so many women spoke out," she said. “This story reinforces what victims of sexual abuse already know: that coming forward is complicated."

Argento and Bennet’s relationship goes back over a decade, when the pair worked together on the 2004 film “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things”. Bennet, who was 7 at the time, was cast as Argento’s son in the movie, which she directed and also helped write.

Argento, who has two children, developed a maternal relationship with Bennet, according to the documents obtained by the New York Times. Following the alleged assault on May 9, 2013 – during which Bennet claimed that Argento gave him alcohol, performed oral sex and had intercourse with him – the young actor “began to feel ‘extremely confused, mortified, and disgusted’”.

Bennet’s lawyer sent Argento the notice of intent to sue a month after her account of being raped by Weinstein appeared in The New Yorker. In the complaint, he wrote that Bennet’s “feelings about that day were brought to the forefront recently when Ms. Argento took the spotlight as one of the many victims of Harvey Weinstein”.

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