It started with the bombshell about the Italian film actress and director Asia Argento, who grabbed headlines in 2017 for helping to galvanize the #MeToo movement with her allegations of sexual coercion at the hands of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Argento has been accused of sending cash payments to silence the actor Jimmy Bennett, her co-star when he was 7 years old, who claims Argento sexually assaulted him in 2013 when he was 17. The age of consent in California is 18.
The revelations were seen as a blow to women’s rights activists, who have been fighting an uphill battle to get men to take seriously the epidemic of mistreatment of women. In the past few months, high-profile men who lost their jobs for harassing women — like Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Mario Batali and Charlie Rose – have begun publicly plotting their comebacks.
It’s such a toxic situation that women are embroiled in movement-splintering arguments about whether the Argento case reveals that women are as abusive, manipulative and opportunistic as men. Or if it reveals nothing more than the ugly fact that society is only willing to believe women who come forward about their sexual assault if they are “perfect victims” whose personal, sexual and professional lives are pure, innocent and unimpeachable.
Meanwhile, just a few days after the Argento controversy, a tragic death in California exploded into a heated national debate about immigration. After five weeks of searching for 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts, a college student home on summer vacation, news broke that her body had been found in an Iowa cornfield and that Cristhian Rivera, an unlawfully present immigrant from Mexico, was under arrest for her murder.
The Trump administration wasted no time in pointing to the incident as evidence that mobs of illegal immigrants are prowling the United States voraciously looking for women and children to rape or kill, with the only solution being Trump’s deportation policies and a costly wall on the southern border.
Tibbetts’ family pleaded with the media to let them grieve in private and asked that their loved one’s death not be politicized. “Please remember, Evil comes in EVERY color,” Billie Jo Calderwood, Tibbetts’ aunt, wrote on Facebook. “Our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship and support throughout this entire ordeal by friends from all different nations and races.”
But two horrible, painful events are playing out for families who weren’t expecting to have their lowest moments paraded through the media. And large swaths of news consumers and social commentators are ignoring facts that are well-established, overwhelming and irrefutable.
For starters, women definitely have flaws, but when it comes to sexual violence, it’s pretty clear who gets victimized most of the time. One in three women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, compared with one in six men, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
And the truth about unauthorized immigrants is that records going back 100 years consistently show that undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.
These unemotional data points do not, in any way, diminish the real and excruciating pain that victims of violence and their families experience. They deserve more than a statistical dismissal of their anguish – those losses, after all, are close and tangible, not just headlines on a smartphone.
Still, neither of these terrible incidents should be considered emblematic or representative of any wider legal policies or social norms.
We lapse into using high-profile cases to reaffirm our pre-set political beliefs because the human brain and psyche are hardwired to over-simplify and categorize the complex, messy and nuanced overload of information that pours over us daily.
Sorting aggressors and victims into angels and devils is a human coping mechanism, but not one without its own victims. We should not be entranced by lurid details into seeing the perpetrators of coercive sexual abuse or cold-blooded murder as a symbol of some larger hypocrisy, conspiracy or societal failure.
If they are found guilty, we’ll all be right to feel angry and disgusted with Argento and Rivera. But we’d be mistaken to allow them to become poster children – the sexually predatory woman; the raping, murdering Mexican – for “trends” when they are actually just horrible outliers.
E-mail: email@example.com. Twitter: @estherjcepeda. Copyright, Washington Post Writers Group.