Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Sunday, The New York Times reported that Italian actress Asia Argento, whose allegations that she was sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein helped launch the #MeToo movement, has been accused of sexual assault herself.
According to documents that the Times obtained through encrypted email from an unidentified source, after Argento made her public accusations against Weinstein, she was accused of assaulting the actor and musician Jimmy Bennett and later paid Bennett $380,000. The Times reported that, at the time of the alleged assault, Bennett had just turned 17 – and was therefore under California’s age of consent, which is 18 – while Argento was 37.
Neither the Times nor CNN has been able to reach Argento for comment, and we don’t know whether the allegations are true. On Monday, Jimmy Bennett’s attorney, Gordon K. Sattro, issued a statement in which the actor declined to comment on the Times report.
There is no question that such ugly accusations against such a significant leader of #MeToo don’t help the movement, giving ammunition to misogynists who question women’s stories of sexual harassment and abuse. But do they present it with a setback?
They do not. They are, actually, evidence of its success.
Whatever the truth of his allegations, Bennett’s apparent willingness to challenge Argento shows that he is aware that the barriers to men reporting allegations of sexual abuse may finally be breaking down.
Consider that one reason perpetrators are able to get away with sexual crimes – against women or men – is that they are often never accused. According to the US Department of Justice’s 2016 National Crime Victimization Survey, the most recent available, just 23% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police.
A major reason for this is because victims are embarrassed to speak out. A 2006 survey of college students found that “shame, guilt, or embarrassment” were significant barriers to reporting rape.
But the flood of victims who have disclosed sexual abuse as part of the #MeToo movement is beginning to erode the fears many victims associate with reporting assault. The women – including Argento – who have spoken out against prominent men thought to be untouchable have set a powerful example. This could explain why Bennett was reportedly willing to challenge Argento, initially, with a lawsuit seeking $3.5 million in damages.
The allegations could also encourage more men to report sexual abuse. Although the #MeToo movement has focused largely on female victims, men are often the victims of sexual assault. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 24.8% of American men experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.
But social stigmas to reporting such abuse are especially strong for men. For example, the survey of college students found that men were significantly more likely than women to report that “shame, guilt, or embarrassment” were reasons not to report rape.
Now, recent claims by men that they have been victims of sexual abuse – such as the actor Brendan Fraser’s allegation that in 2003 he was groped by the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the accused, Philip Berk, told GQ he “pinched” Fraser in jest), and the actor Terry Crews’ assertion that he was groped by a “high level Hollywood executive” – show that some men are emboldened to report such incidents.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz, who was accused of sexual abuse but vindicated in an investigation by MIT, where he teaches, has also written publicly about being raped as a child. In testimony before the Senate last June, Crews called on other men to talk openly about sexual assault. This national conversation is long overdue.
Hopefully, the latest disturbing allegations will teach other men that there’s no shame in speaking up if they are victims of abuse – and that it’s possible to challenge the mighty. As Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement, tweeted on Monday, “I’ve said repeatedly that the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward.”
Burke also tweeted, “Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn’t change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist or professor of any gender.”
That may be the most powerful lesson of all.