Breaking the system

‘They said a woman like me couldn’t be raped’

Asia Argento and others opened up about the misogyny and the sexual misconduct that’s become all too familiar on both sides of the Atlantic

Model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez was 18 years old when her agent tricked her into attending one of the infamous “Bunga Bunga” parties — alleged sex gatherings — hosted by Italy’s then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. When she saw young women dancing and stripping off their clothes, she promptly left the scene. Gutierrez later testified against Berlusconi when he was charged with abuse of power and sex with a minor. He got acquitted. She got massacred in the Italian press.

Gutierrez joined Italian director and actress Asia Argento and Italian Parliamentarian Laura Boldrini on the opening night of the Women in the World Summit in New York on Thursday in a gripping discussion of the #MeToo movement, the backlash, and the challenges ahead. They told moderator Ronan Farrow diabolical stories of harassment they had all suffered as a result of speaking out against sexual violence.

“Italy is a great lens through which to view how far we still have to go,” Farrow said, noting the tremendous progress of the global #MeToo movement, but calling it an “incomplete moment of searching for accountability.”

“I was following my dreams,” Gutierrez said, describing how she had just won a regional beauty pageant when she found herself an unwitting guest at one of Berlusconi’s infamous parties as a teenager. She had grown up in poverty in Italy with an abusive father, and had dreamed of one day becoming a model or actress. Her mother had encouraged her to enter pageants.

“It was kind of weird to understand that following my dreams in Italy is kind of bad,” she told Farrow, describing how she was shocked to later see newspapers blasting headlines calling her a “prostitute” because she had attended the party. As the headlines multiplied, she left the country, fearing her career was ruined.

Five years later, in 2015, she had an other unfortunate episode: She met Harvey Weinstein at an event in New York, and he invited her to his office, where she has said he groped her. She reported the incident to the police and worked with the detectives on a sting. Weinstein was recorded propositioning and pressuring her, and admitting he had groped her. She was subsequently attacked in the gossip pages for that as well, she said, both in the U.S. and Italy.

Ambra Battilana Gutierrez and Ronan Farrow at The 2018 Women In The World Summit in New York City.

Argento was a 21-year-old actress when she had an encounter of her own with Weinstein. She has said that one of his producers invited her to what she thought was a party thrown by Miramax on the French Riviera in 1997. The producer led her upstairs to a hotel room, where Weinstein waited, alone. Weinstein praised her work, then left the room and returned in a bathrobe. He asked her to massage him, and she reluctantly agreed. She says he then sexually assaulted her while she repeatedly told him to stop.

Argento and Gutierrez were among the first women to publicly accuse Weinstein of sexual misconduct, telling their stories to Farrow for The New Yorker, and both suffered harassment and trolling. Argento said she was called a prostitute by the Italian media, noting, “My story was completely distorted. They said a woman like me couldn’t be raped.”

But the backlash only strengthened her voice, she said. “It was fuel that they threw into my fire because of my truth. There’s nothing stronger than truth. They tried to kill me because of it. It made me stronger.”

Boldrini jumped in, noting, “We should be grateful to Asia — she was an example to follow because the had the courage to break such a system.”

Argento countered, “The system did not break.” She said the backlash she faced prevented other women from coming forward against predators. Nonetheless, she said, she hoped that by speaking out, she would encourage other women to do the same. She decided to speak about Weinstein, she said, because, “I felt it was a moment of my conscience that woke up. I knew it would wake up the conscience of all the other women.”

Italian M.P. Laura Boldrini onstage at the Women in the World Summit. (WITW)

Boldrini said women in Italy fear they won’t be believed or will lose their jobs if they come forward against predators. She described the threats she herself has received for her feminism and activism, including threats of death and rape, threats against her daughter, and a bullet arriving in the mail. Her political opponents have harassed her as well, she said, recalling how one said, “We have to send rapists to her house to make her smile again.” Another told people to imagine what they would do to her if they were in a car with her.

“If I had been a man, I would not have been treated like this,” she said. She also pointed out the huge difference between leadership in a country like Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has branded himself a feminist, and her home country, where misogyny seems rampant. “Men in Canada want to be fashionable. And to be fashionable, you need to be feminist,” she quipped.

Still, she said, she maintains hope for Italy. “You can actually win the battle against violence,” she said. “This is not acceptable. You have to speak out. If we speak, we are more united. If we speak, we change things.”

Argento, near the end of the conversation, talked candidly about being labeled a victim. “I hate that term … victim,” she said. “Yes, I am a victim. But I’m still here to fight.” She also struck a hopeful note, adding, “The betterment of women in society is the betterment of the whole society.”

Watch highlights and video of the complete panel at the top of this story.

Additional reporting by Marion Bradford.

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