Last week, after a New York Times investigation (paywall) unleashed a storm of sexual harassment accusations against Harvey Weinstein, The New Yorker (paywall) published another investigation, even more damning. In it, women didn’t just accuse Weinstein of harassment—they said he raped them, forcing them to engage in active and passive oral sex. The accounts were the stuff of a Hollywood nightmare: Very young actresses overpowered by a man who held the keys to their professional future, and for years blamed themselves for the crime.
Of the accounts, perhaps the most distressing is that of Italian actress and director Asia Argento. In the article, she recalls Weinstein forcing himself on her and performing oral sex, despite her requests to stop. “At some point,” reads the piece, “She stopped saying no and feigned enjoyment, because she thought it was the only way the assault would end.” The actress says she still blames herself for what happened. “If I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away. But I didn’t. And so I felt responsible,” she says.
It didn’t end there. Argento (22 at the time) engaged in an on-and-off sexual relationship with the 45-year-old Weinstein, a not-unknown phenomenon among rape victims trying to normalize the incident. But the alleged assault resurfaced in the movie Scarlet Diva, which she wrote and directed: In it, a Weinstein-like character, wearing the signature robe many of the assaulted women said he approached them in, tries to force himself on a young actress who, unlike Argento, manages to flee.
Argento’s story, and the fact that she kept silence for two decades, encapsulates that power imbalance, the complexity of guilt, and the insidious ways in which sexual assault and rape lingers in the lives of the victims for years. The fact that she finally aired her allegations is an act of enormous bravery. But while many around the world have commended Argento for the risk she took in sharing her story, things have been different in her home country of Italy.
Since the article came out, the outrage has been overwhelmingly directed towards Argento. Opinion writer Renato Farina claimed that actresses “first give it away, then whine and fake regret.” He suggested that women like Argento used sex to further their career, calling what happened “prostitution, not rape.” Vittorio Feltri, editor-in-chief of right-wing publication Libero, doubled down (link in Italian), saying in a radio interview that because the actress wasn’t violently harmed, the sex must have been consensual—even suggesting that she was in debt to the Weinstein for the pleasure. Art critic, writer and politician Vittorio Sgarbi (link in Italian) has said, “I have the feeling that he was actually assaulted by her.” And while the actress was in a TV interview talking about the rape accusations, writer and journalist Mario Adinolfi tweeted that Argento was “trying to justify high-society prostitution.” To escape the wave of acrimony that has emerged in Italy, the actress recently announced she’ll be moving to Germany.
In Italy, sexual harassment is still often blamed on the woman, even by those who are closest to her. Morgan, the Italian musician who was Argento’s partner of seven years and has a daughter with her, threw a shadow of doubt on her accusations, saying that Argento had never complained about Weinstein, and that they had a loving relationship as far as he knew. Italian fashion photographer Marcello Cassano, speaking about another victim of Weinstein’s, model Ambra Battilana, said she was merely a victim “of her own beauty.”
It’s not just men. On Facebook, influential female opinion writer Selvaggia Lucarelli called the national conversation about Weinstein (link in Italian) a missed opportunity “to speak about reprehensible male habits, but also of women who put up with them.” Other prominent women joined the debate to praise themselves as examples of women who didn’t put themselves in dangerous situations, or to blame Argento for not speaking up earlier.
Of course, these voices have been countered by others who don’t believe in victim-shaming. Nevertheless, the debate has shed light on a country that still does not unequivocally side with women who are abused, and in which it is still not safe to speak up against a predator. Italy still ranks dismally—below most Western countries—when it comes to the gender equality. Though there has been some progress in countering violence against women in recent years, rape was only recognized as a crime against another person in 1996. Before, it was considered just an offense against common decency, such as public display of nudity, or peeing in public.
In 2017, it’s only more discouraging that famed misogynist Silvio Berlusconi is having yet another comeback. This past Sunday (Oct. 15), talking about a visit he took with Muammar Gaddafi at a refugee camp in Libya (likely in the late 2000s), Berlusconi recounted telling the dictator that he would provide bathroom facilities to teach “African fuckers (scopatori) the existence of foreplay.” The very same press that had unleashed its fury against Argento merely laughed at the silly comment of the once-president.
Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly identified the name of Ambra Battilana’s former boyfriend.