What MTV Airing Ben Affleck Groping Hilarie Burton in 2003 Says About the Sexual Assault Conversation

The network’s treatment of the 2003 on-air incident shows comes to light in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

Premiere Of Warner Bros Pictures' "The Accountant" - Arrivals
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Ben Affleck joined Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Jessica Chastain, and many more of his Hollywood colleagues in decrying the decades-long allegations of sexual assault against the movie executive Harvey Weinstein that have finally been made public in the last week. And while Affleck’s statement followed the usual formula—an expression of disgust at learning of the extent of the allegations, and a call to support those coming forward—his didn’t get exactly the same response. In fact, his statement led the actress Rose McGowan, who’s already proven herself as the best celebrity source in tracking the scandal, to tweet simply, “Ben Affleck f— off.”

Many of the less-than-positive reactions to Affleck’s statement pointed out the hypocrisy in his calling out men who use their “position of power to intimidate, sexually harass, and manipulate many women,” when his own brother, Casey Affleck has largely managed to escape being held accountable for his own alleged sexual assaults, which two women have sued him for in the past. (The lawsuits did not stop Casey Affleck from winning a Best Actor Academy Award last year, but they did cause a lackluster show of enthusiasm from the award’s presenter, Brie Larson.)

While Casey’s alleged misconduct was on McGowan’s mind—she also tweeted “Ben Affleck Casey Affleck, how’s your morning boys?”—she also had specific accusations to level at Ben: She alleged that he was lying about not knowing about Weinstein’s assaults, quoting him as saying, “‘GODDAMNIT! I TOLD HIM TO STOP DOING THAT” to her following a press conference she was forced to attend after Weinstein assaulted her. (McGowan and Affleck appeared together in 1997’s Going All the Way and1998’s Phantoms, the latter of which was produced by Weinstein.)

It didn’t end there for Affleck. Later last night, replying to one of those decrying Affleck’s response, a woman reminded Twitter that “He also grabbed Hilarie Burton’s breasts on TRL once. Everyone forgot though.” And while Burton hadn’t even been tagged in the tweet, within a few hours she replied, “I didn’t forget.”

After adding that she “was a kid,” the One Tree Hill actress, who was at that time a host of MTV’s TRL and in her late teens, tweeted, “Girls. I’m so impressed with you brave ones. I had to laugh back then so I wouldn’t cry. Sending love,” along with a video of the cold open of MTV TRL Uncensored, with a voice-over saying that “we’re just going to go ahead and show and tell all,” before flashing to Burton saying, “and he comes over and tweaks my left boob.”

The incident is further illustrated in a clip from TRL Uncensored II, with Affleck telling Burton how she’s always saying she’s “free-spirited,” before wrapping his arm around her and groping her. “I was just like, What are you doing? Girls like a good tweakage here and there, but I’d rather have a high-five,” Burton says in the clip, apparently trying to play off the incident. (It can be found on YouTube, as can another video from the following year, 2004, of Affleck infamously attempting to do an interview with the Canadian TV host Anne-Marie Losique while she’s seated on his lap—and while encouraging her to show more skin. “You usually show a lot more cleavage than this. What’s the story?” he said, among other deplorable things.*)

To be clear, Affleck’s behavior, as far as we know, is nowhere near comparable to Weinstein’s, which was systematic, calculated, and repeatedly abetted and covered up.

Hilarie Burton, La La, and Ben Affleck on MTV’s *TRL* at the MTV Times Square Studios in 2003.

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

But the type of evidence that has mounted against Weinstein is rare; most assaults, of course, are not sting operations (as was the case with his accuser Ambra Gutierrez), and take place behind closed doors. The footage of Burton’s harassment, on the other hand, has been out there for over a decade, and the fact that it wasn’t buried, but aired and lightly turned into an on-screen joke, just exemplifies how misinformed typical discussions of sexual assault are. It is, after all, an extremely uncomfortable, and often triggering topic—Gwyneth Paltrow, for one, was criticized on her Instagram repeatedly for not condemning Weinstein, before she came forward with her own experience—which means there will no doubt be more clumsy defenses along the way.

But as the cases of Weinstein and MTV seem to illustrate, if these conversations aren’t had, the patterns will continue. The year after Affleck groped Burton, for example, the set of MTV’s Real World became a potential crime scene after a 22-year-old woman alleged she had been raped, as appeared to be revealed in a medical examination. And in 2011, Tonya Cooley sued MTV for its producers and camera allegedly observing her being sexually assaulted during the production of The Real World—a suit that MTV’s parent company, Viacom, dismissed because Cooley “failed to avoid” the situation, which it in part ended up airing, too.

Still, making light of, belittling, and even further taking advantage of the women who come forward is not the way these conversations should go. Ironically enough, the proper way to conduct them can be found in Affleck’s statement: “We must support those who come forward, condemn this type of behavior when we see it and help ensure there are more women in positions in power.” And he seems to have really meant it: The very next day he got to work on his call to action—starting with himself.

* Update 10/11/17, 5:27 p.m.: On Wednesday afternoon, TV host Anne-Marie Losique told the Hollywood Reporter that the incident has been misconstrued. She said the interview in which she sat in Affleck’s lap “was for the camera. You have to understand that we have done dozens and dozens of interviews like that. It was for a show I was producing, so I was not at all a victim. When the cameras rolled, we would start to do that game. As soon as it stopped rolling, there was none of that. He never touched me in any improper way. He was very respectful, I must say… I know that people like fishing for anything, but this is completely out of context. I would like this to not have any negative impact on [Affleck]. I find it sad.”

Related: How Tabloids Dragged Ambra Gutierrez Through the Mud After She Accused Harvey Weinstein of Groping Her

See what’s trending on W video: