All of which makes it difficult for me to sit comfortably on the #believeallvictims side of the fence. What happens when a #MeToo victim like Asia Argento is the accused?
Laura Kipnis/The Guardian, UK
Cases such as that of the activist film star and the young actor Jimmy Bennett may be about so much more than sex
Big news this week on the sexual transgression front. Two well-known women – one a film star and #MeToo luminary, Asia Argento; the other an academic star, New York University professor Avital Ronell – were hit with allegations by two young men claiming to have been sexually victimised.
Terrible as the charges were, I confess that part of me was relieved: the #MeToo conversations had started to seem a bit smug about the female virtues lately. All we’ve heard for the last 10 months has been tales of women under siege by male sexuality, and cast once again as the morally upstanding gender. Although we don’t know the truth of what happened in these cases, it is good to be reminded that women are occasionally less than virtuous too.
There have actually been plenty of other accused women – if less headline-worthy specimens than this week’s crop. I know this, having been one of them, dragged through secret campus investigations over controversial things I’ve written – twice charged with, and twice cleared of, creating a hostile environment (See my book, Unwanted Advances, if you want the details.) After going public about my case, I spent the next couple of years listening to the confidential stories of other accused sadsacks of every gender and sexual persuasion – professors, students, and more recently those caught on the wrong side of #MeToo.
All of which makes it difficult for me to sit comfortably on the #believeallvictims side of the fence. Yes, #MeToo has been necessary and overdue. But, as with campus investigations, a portion of the accusations is also overblown. Having learned what I’ve learned, I am unable to believe that every accuser has no motive other than truth and justice; nor can I take allegations alone as settled facts.
Ronell’s accuser and former student, Nimrod Reitman, filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against her and her university, claiming his lack of success on the job market was Ronell’s fault: he says she sexualised his graduate school experience and sabotaged his career. (For the record, she’s a gay woman in her 60s; he’s a gay man in his 30s.)
I’m not suggesting that money is the only motivation in such cases, and we don’t know the truth of what happened in either, but clearly lawsuits and press releases are crafted to persuade an audience. The problem is that, in life, who did what to whom isn’t always simple. The mobbing aimed at Argento and Ronell demanded comforting stories of villainous monsters, and if anything, the gender twist lent an extra viciousness to the proceedings. On Twitter, Argento wasn’t just a sex criminal: she had also caused her boyfriend Anthony Bourdain’s suicide by involving him in the payoff to Bennett. Ronell’s academic demonisers, presumably trained in critical reading, have been no less righteous, oddly eager to regard the necessarily one-sided claims of a lawsuit as a transparent window on to reality.
It’s tough to argue with a mob, so let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that the Ronell allegations are true, and she indeed crossed numerous boundaries with Reitman. What that means in legal terms is an interesting question. The critical reader will notice that variations on the word “sex” are deployed more than 90 times in the 56-page lawsuit. There’s no indication that Ronell wanted sex with Reitman; there’s no indication sex took place. Is the emphasis on sex required because other ways of framing the story might raise human questions too complex to be settled via a lawsuit?
Yet what if a non-legal framing got us closer to some sort of truth? Reading Reitman’s lawsuit reminded me of nothing more than François Truffaut’s wrenching 1975 film The Story of Adèle H, about the unhinged, erotomaniacal daughter of Victor Hugo who tracks a British officer she is obsessed with to civil war-era Nova Scotia. Once there she stalks him through the fog, fantasising – no matter how much he tries to deter her – that he returns her love. Spoiler alert: she ends up homeless and destitute, and eventually institutionalised. Then she dies. Not a happy story. And not especially relevant in the current climate: sexual harassment is the complaint that gets attention.
I’m not diagnosing anyone, rather pointing out that how we frame the stories we tell is conditioned by various factors and interests. These “frames” (in sociologist-speak) shift over time and cultures. A 17-year-old and a 37-year-old together in bed now appals; a few generations ago, the play Tea and Sympathy – which concludes with the sexual propositioning of a prep school student by his headmaster’s wife – was a sentimental Broadway hit.Of course, there are also certain timeless themes, and one of them is the fear of sexual mother-monsters, the subtext peeking out from between the week’s headlines. Argento once played Bennett’s mother onscreen. Hence some of the vitriol, no doubt. Movie mum and son in bed – it’s a little close to incest, right? Ronell too, according to Reitman’s lawsuit, was the mother of all nasty sexed-up mothers: gross, “geriatric”, forcing him into her bed, joining him in his, stroking and besieging him with her bottomless needs. Ronell has been found guilty by her university of sexual harassment; she has denied all Reitman’s allegations. In the frame of the lawsuit or campus tribunals, neediness can only be construed as sexual. I’m less convinced that sex is the key that entirely unlocks this story.
Still, it is said that incest wouldn’t need to be taboo if we didn’t also at some level desire it. Who knows? The easier stories are the simple ones that operate on one vector alone: me victim, you abuser. Personally, I wonder what it feels like to slay the flamboyant-admired-loathed-desired monster-mentor with the sharp sword of a lawsuit, or butcher a temptress mother, leaving her bleeding and destroyed. Not that that is what happened here – but at some level it is what happens in all our imaginations, which is what makes fables like these so entrancing.