Because there IS overlap and we need to learn to admit it.
[cw: discussion of sexual assault]
American culture is weird in that (a) we are often able to believe in (and even weirdly appreciate) the often-cyclical, “pay it forward” model of violence and the dual nature people can hold as victim and victimizer, and also that (b) sometimes we’re really, really not.
Robin Hood’s basic shtick is that things were taken from him (either in the form of his lands and title being stolen or just really oppressive taxes, depending on the version of the tale you’re looking at) so he takes things from other people who are better off. A good portion of hero origin stories consist of “Bad shit happened to me so now I do bad shit to other people in the name of justice and/or revenge,” most notably “darker” heroes like Batman or the Punisher. Hell, even our government-sanctioned death penalty is somewhat based on this model—we kill people who kill people to show them that killing people is wrong (think about that…I’ll wait.)
But when it comes to sexual assault, we suddenly get a mental record-scratch. We cannot believe that the same person is both victim and victimizer. And this disbelief can take one of two forms; either “they are a survivor of sexual assault, so there is no way that they could sexually assault someone else,” or “they committed sexual assault, so there’s no way that they could be telling the truth about their own assault.”
I’ve seen both versions of this narrative swirl around Asia Argento. Argento is an actress, #MeToo activist, survivor of sexual assault from Harvey Weinstein, and girlfriend of the late Anthony Bourdain. She is also (Richard always makes me put “allegedly” here so we don’t get sued) a perpetrator of sexual assault. And this combination of identities does not seem to suit…well basically anyone.
Argento has been one of the more vocal members of the most recent iteration of the #MeToo movement. It was recently revealed that Argento paid a $380,000 settlement to Jimmy Bennett, an actor that she (allegedly) assaulted when he was barely seventeen. (She also played his mom in a movie and has known Bennett since he was seven, so there are alllllll kinds of layers of “fucked up” in this story.) And these two features combined seemed to break the internet’s cognitive dissonance meter.
I’m not linking to articles or comments, because they are often vile, but I’ve read them so you don’t have to, and things fall basically into two camps:
On the one hand, you have people firmly disbelieving that Argento could have assaulted Bennett, for a variety of reasons. Some are clinging to outdated, sexist notions that women cannot be perpetrators of sexual assault. Some are saying that because Argento herself is a survivor, there is no way that she could have been a perpetrator as well. Some are calling it an attempt to discredit the #MeToo movement. Argento herself claims that Bennett is both emotionally damaged and financially destitute, and is simply trying to extort money from her based on his knowledge of her partner Bourdain’s perceived wealth and her prominence in the Weinstein case.
On the other hand, you have the people who say that this is proof that Argento herself was never sexually assaulted, and that the #MeToo movement is also bullshit by extension. Because how could someone who has experienced sexual assault also commit sexual assault?
The answer is, the same way everyone else does: by seeking power and control. There are a lot of reasons why it may be harder for people to believe that a sexual assault survivor could become a sexual assault perpetrator than it is to believe that someone who has been robbed could become a thief, or someone who has been hurt could beat up someone else. My personal theory is that this inability to suspend disbelief comes from a couple of sources. The first is that we consider sexual assault to be something so intimate, and so personal, that it affects the victim and the victim’s spirit in a way that is different from all other crimes. We find it nearly impossible to believe that someone who has experienced a violation on that level could go on to violate someone else. I also think it comes from the fact that the majority of sexual assault survivors are women. No matter how many “Wives with Knives” shows get trotted out on the ID channel, we still have a concept of women as gentler and more forgiving than their male counterparts. It is harder for us to imagine them perpetrating on someone else. (This also feeds into our general difficulty imagining women being perpetrators of sexual assault, period.)
But while experts disagree on if there is a causative or correlative relationship between being a victim of various types of abuse and becoming a victimizer of that type of abuse (and if so, to what extent), the Venn diagram of “victims” and “victimizers” definitely has some overlap. Just because we don’t have as many movies about women being sexually assaulted and then going on a revenge spree where she sexually assaults others doesn’t mean that someone who has experienced sexual assault can’t perpetrate it against someone else.
So while we’re at it, let’s correct some of the misconceptions present in the discourse currently surrounding Argento.
- Asia Argento can’t have sexually assaulted anyone because she was assaulted herself.
….nope. See above.
- If Asia Argento sexually assaulted someone, that means she’s lying about being sexually assaulted herself.
Do I find it deeply disappointing, not to mention hypocritical, that a sexual assault survivor who is asking for her own experiences to be recognized and believed is belittling and gaslighting another survivor of sexual assault? Of course I do. Do I think that this means that Argento herself was not assaulted? Abso-fucking-lutely not. For the five millionth time, sexual assault is about power and control. You can be someone who has had power and control taken from them, and then take power and control from someone else. One doesn’t preclude the other.
- Argento’s assault of Bennett discredits the #MeToo movement.
Again, no. As Princess Weekes points out, the fact that Argento is facing scrutiny for her actions is actually a sign of the #MeToo movement’s strength. The movement is about believing and supporting all survivors. But supporting Argento as she works through the aftermath of her assault does not have to mean forgiving her for the assault she committed.
- The #MeToo movement is only about/should only be about women.
While the majority of sexual assault survivors are women, and the majority of sexual assault survivors who have spoken up in the #MeToo movement are women, that does not make them the only survivors or the only voice in the movement. Men and nonbinary individuals are also sexual assault survivors, and men in particular are likely to under-report their experiences. Terry Crews and Brendan Fraser have both come forward with their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment, and Crews in particular has become a major voice in the #MeToo movement, discussing toxic masculinity, gender norms, the interplay of power regarding race and gender, and sexual assault myths about “fighting back.”
It’s always going to be tricky and complicated when a survivor of sexual assault commits sexual assault against someone else. Both deserve support as survivors, and both should be believed regarding their experiences. I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert at simultaneously supporting and condemning a survivor who is also a perpetrator. But just because it is complicated doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed, or that it doesn’t happen. And if we’re going to move forward as a society, we have to learn how to address these instances as well.
Signed: Feminist Fury.
Featured image is of a Venn diagram of A and B and the overlap A+B.