Content warning: This piece deals with issues around rape and sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers.
In the 10 months since The New York Times published an explosive report alleging 65-year-old film executive, Harvey Weinstein, sexually harassed many women in Hollywood over a period of 30 years, we’ve been engaged in a complex and important cultural conversation.
With countless men and women coming forward to tell their stories about sexual assault and harassment, a spotlight has been shone on the nuances of these experiences. We’ve asked questions about power, shame, consent, inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, and what it means to be complicit. Time and time again, however, we’re learning that we’re only just beginning to understand these issues.
On Monday, The New York Times reported that Asia Argento, an Italian actress and director who has become a leading figure in the #MeToo movement, paid off her own accuser. While the 42-year-old publicly shared her story of sexual assault at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, she was quietly arranging to pay $380,000 to a young actor named Jimmy Bennett, who claimed she sexually assaulted him when he was 17.
The documents, seen by The New York Times, claim that for Bennett, seeing Argento presented as a victim triggered memories of his own ‘sexual battery’ in a hotel room in May, 2013.
His account states that on May 9, he arrived at Argento’s room at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey, California, for a ‘reunion,’ as the actors had worked together closely in the past. Bennett was accompanied by a family member, whom Argento requested leave so she could be alone with Bennett. The then 37-year-old actress kissed her former colleague, removed his pants and performed oral sex, before climbing on top of him and having intercourse.
Argento shared a number of photos of the reunion on social media.
On his way home from meeting Argento, Bennett’s account stated he started to feel “extremely confused, mortified, and disgusted”. The trauma of the encounter, according to his claim, resulted in emotional distress and loss of wages.
The facts of the case are complicated, with Bennett also filing a claim against his parents in 2013 for the state of his trust, saying he was broke and couldn’t pay his rent. When contacted by The New York Times, neither Bennett, Argento, or any of their representatives would provide comment.
What can be gleaned from the disturbing story, however, as well as the conversation that’s followed, is that there remains an archaic stigma around the concept of sexual assault against men. Particularly when it’s perpetrated by a woman.
Of the 1233 comments on The New York Times article at the time of writing, an unsettling number imply that boys and men want sex at all times, and therefore can’t be victims of sexual assault.
One comment, posted by David from Birmingham, New York, reads:
“I am as baffled by this story as I am by many of the comments about it. I’m sorry, but I simply cannot even grasp the concept that a 17 year male can be sexually assaulted by a 37 year old woman. Men, in general, have greater body mass and strength than women. I can see how a 37 y/o man can physically overpower a 17 y/o girl. I can also see how a 37 y/o male can intimidate a 17 y/o girl into having sex. I cannot see how either of those things can occur between a 37 y/o woman and a 17 y/o young man. On top of this, in order for a man to have intercourse, he has to be sexually aroused. How is intercourse even physically possible in the case of a women “raping” a man? Is it even possible for a woman to rape a man in the case of PIV intercourse? And if all this were not enough, what possible motive could Argento have had? Attractive women can have sex virtually anytime they want with virtually anyone that want. Why would it be necessary to force this young man into sex? It just doesn’t make any sense to me. I can honestly say that I have never in my life been subjected to anything even remotely approaching sexual harassment by women. I mean, seriously, does such a thing even exist?”
In a similar vein, on Argento’s Instagram account, beneath one of the photos of she and Bennett on May 9, a comment reads: “I would like to be the victim of Asia Argento.”
Another man writes, “I was 17 years old… and I wouldn’t say no to an older sexy woman. Ergo it wasn’t a rape.”
“Asia having sex with him at 17 caused distress and hindered his career?” writes another user. “Are you effing kidding me right now? Someone needs to pull his man card if he ever had one.”
For Dr Gary Foster, the founder of Living Well, an organisation dedicated to supporting men who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault, this discourse is deeply problematic.
In all jurisdictions in Australia, female rape of a male is recognised as a crime.
“Just because a male is physically strong doesn’t mean he can’t be emotionally manipulated, it doesn’t mean he can’t, because of a relationship with that person, feel obligated [to have sex with them],” he told Mamamia. “Maybe that person has information that he’s embarrassed about, that they could expose him.. or it could be that they’re in a position of authority, or holding out the possibility of a contract, so then they agree to that.”
“It doesn’t mean afterwards that they don’t feel really horrible. The fact is they’re compliant under duress, so they didn’t freely consent to this.”
Certain tropes about male sexual proclivities make it particularly hard for men to report sexual assault, said Dr Foster.
“If you think about a 17-year-old boy, there’s those American Pie discourses, that they’re interested in sex with older women,” he said. “So it becomes very hard for them to name that and for that to be taken seriously. What we have to be careful of… is that we don’t talk about deserving and undeserving victims.”
In particular, Foster rejected the notion that sexual arousal indicates consent – an idea that has already been dismantled in conversations about female sexual assault. “The erection argument doesn’t work either, because when males are agitated, when they are distressed, when they are manipulated physically, they can still have an erection,” he said.
The difficulty of the story of Asia Argento and Jimmy Bennett is that it requires us to hold several seemingly conflicting truths at once: that most perpetrators of sexual assault are men, but sometimes they can be women; that most victims of sexual assault are women, but sometimes they can be men; that a person can be a victim, and in another instance, also be a perpetrator; that a 17-year-old boy is considered society’s ultimate figure of crazed sexuality, but can be sexually taken advantage of, too.
Extensive research shows that sexual assault against men by women is not only possible, but is likely to be significantly more common than we know. Men make up 10 to 15 per cent of all rape victims, and while research shows the person who assaults them is usually another man, women can and do rape men. Around 35 per cent of male rape and sexual assault involves at least one woman.
A 2014 study from the US found that 79 per cent of men who were “made to penetrate” another person (which is widely understood to be a form of rape), were made to do so by a female.
The idea that men cannot be sexually victimised by women speaks volumes about the rigid way we view gender, even when we firmly believe in our own progressiveness. We see men as sexually insatiable, assuming that all sex is always welcome, and women as unable to wield the necessary amount of power to manipulate or force a man’s behaviour.
But decades of research tells us that women are not always victims, and men are not always perpetrators.
Truths like these need to become a part of a nuanced discussion around sexual assault – even when they make it difficult. Because embracing complexity when it comes to predatory behaviour is undoubtedly the next frontier for #MeToo.
If this article brings up issues for you, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence hotline on 1800 737 732 for 24/7 counselling, or visit LivingWell, a service for male victims of sexual assault. Alternatively, you can call Lifeline on 131 114.