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Actress Asia Argento, A Prominent Voice In #MeToo Movement, Paid Off Her Own Accuser

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Italian actress Asia Argento was one of the first women to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. And she followed those accusations with a bold speech at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASIA ARGENTO: In 1997, I was raped by Harvey Weinstein here at Cannes. I was 21 years old. This festival was his hunting ground.

CHANG: She said there were people who still needed to be held accountable for their conduct against women.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARGENTO: For behavior that does not belong in this industry, does not belong in any industry or workplace.

CHANG: But it turns out that in the months after coming forward about her experiences, Asia Argento quietly arranged to pay off her own accuser, a young actor named Jimmy Bennett. He claims she sexually assaulted him in a hotel room years earlier when he was only 17 and she was 37. A warning - we will hear a description of the alleged assault.

Kim Severson is the New York Times reporter who broke this story, and she joins us now. Welcome.

KIM SEVERSON: Hello.

CHANG: Can you just first walk us through the accusation against Argento? How did she and Jimmy Bennett know each other? And what does he claim happened in that hotel room?

SEVERSON: He was a young actor on a movie that she co-wrote and directed. They kept in intermittent contact over the years. And she was in a hotel room in Marina del Rey and invited him to come up and visit. This is according to a document that we got ahold of that he sent to her.

CHANG: OK.

SEVERSON: And what he says in this document was that he arrived at the hotel room. She gave him alcohol, showed him some letters she had written on hotel stationery and then proceeded to kiss him, remove his pants, performed oral sex on him, climbed on top of him, and they had intercourse and then was being driven home, started to have some disconcerting thoughts about it.

CHANG: Bennett is accusing Argento of sexual assault. Does he describe what he felt was coercive about that experience in the hotel room?

SEVERSON: They had a relationship that he saw very much as a mentor-mentee relationship. So you know, I think sexual assault is - it means a lot of different things to different people. There's a criminal definition, certainly. And in this case, the question is whether this would be a statutory rape. But I certainly think it was different than, you know, one might think of a more violent rape.

CHANG: Now you usually cover food and culture for The New York Times, right? How did you come across this story?

SEVERSON: I had written some #MeToo stories, so our radar was up around this. But I also covered Anthony Bourdain's suicide for the Times.

CHANG: And Bourdain and Argento were dating at the time, and Bourdain became this really vocal spokesperson for the #MeToo movement. He supported her while she was accusing Harvey Weinstein.

SEVERSON: Absolutely. He was really a great champion for women and this issue.

CHANG: Is there any evidence that Bourdain knew about this payoff to Bennett?

SEVERSON: Oh, he absolutely knew about it, yes. There's just no doubt that Tony Bourdain helped navigate this.

CHANG: Now most of the stories we have been hearing during this entire #MeToo movement involve women accusing men of sexual misconduct. But in this case, obviously the gender roles are reversed. That said, what about the dynamics here between Argento and Bennett - what about them feel familiar to you if these allegations are true?

SEVERSON: I think what's interesting - if you flipped this around and it was a 17-year-old girl that we were talking about and a 37-year-old man, I think the discussion would be very different.

CHANG: Yeah.

SEVERSON: I think the number of young men who are sexually abused is widely unreported. And I think this is part of the #MeToo movement, at least as a sexual assault piece of the #MeToo movement, that will be discussed more.

I also think it's really important to remember there is sexism and sexual harassment and sexual assault, and then there's maybe a Venn diagram where all those things meet and that the #MeToo movement is - covers lots of ground.

CHANG: Kim Severson is the reporter for The New York Times who broke this story. Thank you very much.

SEVERSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.