Asia Argento, one of the first Harvey Weinstein accusers to come forward, now finds herself on the other side of the #MeToo movement in which she had been a prominent figure. According to a recent New York Times report, just months after accusing Weinstein of rape, Argento agreed to pay $380,000 to Jimmy Bennett, an actor and musician, after he accused Argento of sexually assaulting him when he was underage. Argento denies the allegations, but the report has stirred an important conversation about avoiding a double standard when it comes to handling sexual harassment complaints when the accused is female and the accuser is male.
The Times reports that it received an encrypted email from an unidentified party containing “documents between lawyers for Ms. Argento and Mr. Bennett” explaining that Bennett accused Argento of sexually assaulting him in a California hotel room when he was age 17 and she was 37. The age of consent in California is 18, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has reportedly reached out to Bennett regarding any potential criminal allegations.
The Times reports that it also received a selfie photograph of the two lying in bed and dated May 9, 2013. TMZ has now published a photograph that appears to show the two lying down and posing for a selfie. Argento has denied having a sexual relationship with Bennett, stating that it was merely a friendship. The two have publicly referred to each other as having a mother and son relationship. At age 7, Bennett played the part of Argento’s character’s abused and neglected son in her 2004 film, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.
Bennett released a statement on Wednesday stating in part: “I did not initially speak out about my story because I chose to handle it in private with the person who wronged me. My trauma resurfaced as she came out as a victim herself. . . . I was underage when the event took place, and I tried to seek justice in a way that made sense to me at the time because I was not ready to deal with the ramifications of my story becoming public. At the time I believed there was still a stigma to being in the situation as a male in our society. I didn’t think that people would understand the event that took place from the eyes of a teenage boy.”
Taranna Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, has commented that “the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including those brave young men who are now coming forward.” Alyssa Milano, another early voice in the movement, said in an interview with Good Morning America that those “that have been abused can also be abusers. . . . The fact that people are still coming forward and still holding people accountable for their actions, whether that be a male predator or a female predator—to me, that’s a testament that the movement is working, and there is progress being made.”
Meanwhile, Rose McGowen, a fellow Weinstein accuser and prominent figure in the #MeToo movement, has faced backlash for her comments asking the public to “be gentle” with Argento and keep in mind that “[n]one of us know the truth of the situation.” Critics have characterized McGowen’s comment as hypocritical, as contrary to her past comments condemning males accused of such conduct, and as indicative of a double standard when the accused is a female friend and the accuser is male.
A key takeaway from an employment law standpoint is that employers must take harassment complaints seriously regardless of the sex of the accused and the accuser. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for investigating complaints of workplace harassment and discrimination, it received 6,696 charges alleging sexual harassment in fiscal year 2017. Of those charges, 16.5% were filed by males. It is unclear whether the #MeToo movement—and Burke’s efforts to embrace accusers regardless of sex—will have any impact on the percentage of males reporting sexual harassment.
In short, employers should take prompt action in response to any report of harassment or discrimination, regardless of the sex or other status of the accused and the accuser. Employers should immediately investigate such claims, consider hiring an outside investigator, and determine what (if any) remedial measures (e.g., employee training, disciplinary action, etc.) are appropriate based on the results of a thorough investigation.