This debate was not easy for me to watch. The others weren’t easy for me to watch either - and I flat-out skipped the Vice Presidential debate, so that really just leaves the first Presidential debate being difficult to watch - but this one was particularly biting.
Before it even started, it felt like the Trump campaign was undergoing an implosion of galactic proportions. High-ranking GOP officials were rescinding endorsements, poll numbers were tanking, and Trump’s unapologetic apology was drawing more ire than his silence. Clinton, meanwhile, was staying largely silent. The issue of sexual assault has always been a touchy one for her. Unlike other politicians, for whom declarations of support for survivors are easy campaign soundbites, the spate of allegations against her husband and his association with Monica Lewinsky have created a trap for her that is all to easy to walk into.
So that was the atmosphere before the auditorium at Washington St. Louis was even open to the public. And then, Trump invited the media to a “pre-debate prep preview session”. This consisted, disturbingly, of him at a table with four women who leveled those accusations of sexual assault against Bill Clinton: Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathy Shelton (whose story is the subject of the viral post about Hillary supposedly “laughing” at a twelve year old victim whose accuser she got acquitted), and Paula Jones. Trump sat in the middle, flanked by two women on each side, looking on as each addressed the media.
The entire display was, quite frankly, disgusting. To sit and watch as Trump eyed each woman, knowing the kind of things he said and did both on the Access Hollywood tape and elsewhere, was the kind of disgusting, low-ball move I’m constantly astounded by in this campaign. Moreover, as a survivor myself, it disturbed me. Here were four women, whose trauma and experiences were political fodder, and their bodies Trump’s political props. It was clear to me that he didn’t care about their stories. He was using them as ammunition again the Clintons. And it worked, to some degree; Bill’s never had the best poker face, and when he was walking into the auditorium he looked like he’d seen a ghost (and for all intents and purposes he had).
There was quite a bit of discussion online about this topic. It had been simmering beneath the campaign for its entirety and now, in its eleventh hour, the issue of each candidate’s proximity to sexual violence had boiled over in the most ugly of ways. Progressive communities, which typically have more to say on issues of sexual violence than conservative ones, were divided. Some saw the Clinton accusers as exceptions to the believability rule - distractions, in a time when Trump himself had openly admitted to perpetrating sexual violence on tape. Others saw the Clinton issue as Hillary’s responsibility, something that was almost entirely her fault.
As a result, the phrase “rape apologist” was thrown around a lot. “Donald Trump may be a rapist, but Hillary is a rape apologist,” many online said. Sometimes, there was an unspoken addendum: “And there’s not much of a difference between the two”.
Let me be clear: I believe the women who say Bill Clinton sexually assaulted them. I believe the women who say Donald Trump sexually assaulted them. I do not, however, believe the fault for their assaults lies in the hands of anyone but the perpetrator.
For me, framing Hillary as a rape apologist, or an enabler, is a reiteration of the time honored practice of blaming women for sexual violence. While she may not have been the victim, conversations around the issue treat Hillary like she is solely responsible for her husband’s conduct. If she had been a better wife, the argument goes, Bill would have never taken advantage of these women. She made his crimes possible.
Male criminality seems to always be the fault of women. When a man makes a mistake, the blame consistently falls back on the females in his life, as tangental their connections to the man might be. Discussions around school shootings usually circle back to the shooter’s mother. What kind of mother would raise such a monster? Conversations on serial killers or murderers often place scrutiny on the killer’s wife or mother. How could she not know he was going to do this?
Female criminals, on the other hand, are solely responsible for their behavior. Consider Aileen Wuornos, the subject of Charlize Theron’s Oscar winning performance in Monster, who is considered the first American female serial killer. Wuornos was a prostitute who was sexually abused at the hands of men almost her entire life. Her first victim was a man who restrained and raped her - arguably, a crime of self defense. Wuornos, however, was given little to no sympathy for her troubled history. She was pure evil, a sadistic mastermind with no empathy. In reality, she was likely a very damaged woman who committed unforgivable crimes. The men who abused and harmed her, however, were rarely criticized for their association with her.
When men rape, it is usually, tangentially, the fault of the women around them. Camille Cosby, Melania Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Huma Abdein are all somehow to blame for crimes their husbands committed. They are the shadowy explanation for infidelity, even when that infidelity is criminal.
And for those who say Hillary Clinton is a rape apologist? Newsflash: we all are. Every single one of is was, is, or will be at some point, making allowances for rapists. I think many survivors know this first hand; in my own experience, I was my rapist’s biggest apologist. I came up with reason after reason why he wasn’t a bad person, why what he did wasn’t that big of a deal, and why it was actually me who had done something wrong. It doesn’t surprise me then, when others do the same.
I don’t blame Hillary Clinton for staying with Bill, just as I don’t blame Melania Trump for staying with Donald. The cognitive dissonance required to associate with a rapist is something we’re all capable of - and something every one of us does day in and day out. The dynamics in a marriage where one party is constantly seeking power and control over women are such that it’s impossible for me to only think badly of the wives for staying with their husbands. As Whitney Houston said to Oprah when explaining why she stayed with abusive husband Bobby Brown for so long, “I took those vows very seriously.” We as humans are experts at surviving all sorts of unthinkable situations. I doubt we’ll ever know the true dynamic between the Clintons or the Trumps, but we know the dynamics that exist between ourselves and the rapists in our lives. Those self-aware enough to even acknowledge their own association with those individuals would likely be unable to explain why those dynamics from the inside.
Last night made me sad. It made me sad that Trump, a rapist, trotted out four survivors as political fodder. It made me sad that those four women felt they gained something from taking a stand against one rapist by sitting alongside another. It made me sad that after all this time, Hillary Clinton is still blamed for everything that is dysfunctional about her marriage to Bill. And it made me sad that when Anderson Cooper confronted Trump with the facts of sexual assault, Trump looked him in the eye and just explained it away. But most of all, it made me sad that the whole thing felt so normal - that we give rapists a platform to explain away their conduct, and blame the women who stand by them rather than examining our own relationship(s) to the rapists in our lives.
I believe them. I believe Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathy Shelton, and Paula Jones. But I also believe Nancy O’Dell, Alicia Machado, and all the other women who say Trump assaulted or harassed them. And I also believe that it’s possible to fight to hold rapists and sexual predators accountable without dragging the women they associate with into the mud alongside them. If we do that, we’re making it that much easier for those predators to stand on their backs and save their own skins.
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