The partisan divide in sexual politics

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Donald Trump walks past Bill Clinton after the presidential town hall debate at Washington University Oct. 9.,LuxyREUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Donald Trump walks past Bill Clinton after the presidential town hall debate at Washington University Oct. 9.LuxyREUTERS/Lucy NicholsonREUTERS

It's true. While Donald Trump's accusers are celebrated as courageous truth-tellers, Bill Clinton's accusers are often cast as bitter spoilers.

Both of these powerful men allegedly assaulted or harassed a range of female victims over a time frame that goes back several decades. Clinton was also accused of rape, and so was Trump. The Huffington Post and New York Daily News both reported that an anonymous "Jane Doe" filed a federal lawsuit accusing Trump of raping her, in 1994, when she was 13.

The obvious distinction? Trump is running for president, and Bill Clinton is not. Hillary Clinton, his wife, is. But that doesn't explain everything.


When Bill Clinton was running for president, women like me gave him a pass, and still do. Yet if the revelations about Trump's behavior present an opportunity to revolutionize thinking about male sexual behavior, female outrage shouldn't break down along partisan lines. Victims shouldn't be believed or doubted based upon political affiliation. And sexual aggressors shouldn't be vilified or forgiven based upon their political ideology.

But despite all the talk about this as a moment of female empowerment, partisan politics greatly influences the reaction to these charges of sexual misbehavior. And I'm not excusing myself from the mental gymnastics required to condemn Trump and brush aside charges against Bill Clinton.

When Trump called a press conference with three of Clinton's accusers before last week's debate, some described them as props to help Trump divert attention from the embarrassing "Access Hollywood" tape that showed him bragging lewdly about kissing women against their will and grabbing them. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was mocked for showcasing Clinton's accusers while trying to spin the charges against Trump. And Hillary Clinton was never pressed to respond to one of her own past tweets, retweeted by Conway, which piously declared: "Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported."


This is no defense of Trump, who has shown his unfitness for the presidency in myriad ways. From his promise to put Hillary Clinton in jail if he's elected, to his call for drug tests before this week's debate, Trump continues to drag this campaign down to a point so low that it's hard to watch. In the "Access Hollywood'' tape, Trump came across as a predatory pig — and, in his response to it, as an unrepentant one. His belittling of accusers as too unattractive to be worthy of his unwanted touching also makes it much harder for Trump to press the argument that Hillary Clinton trashed her husband's accusers.

As a strategy, Trump's plan to focus on Bill Clinton's past sexual misbehavior doesn't seem to be working. Voters don't care, maybe because, as Vice President Joe Biden said, the former president did pay a price. He was humiliated and impeached and ultimately apologized for his sexual liaison with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Or maybe it's because Bill Clinton isn't the candidate. If he were, some female commentators now believe, he couldn't get elected — at least if there were a tape of him bragging about grabbing a woman's genitals. But I'm not so sure about that. If he were running against a conservative boy scout, he might still be electable to women who say they care more about Roe v. Wade, the future of the Supreme Court, equal pay, and global warming.


At the same time, polls also show the accusations about Trump aren't hurting him as much as his opponents would like.

The lesson may be that powerful men will continue to get away with sexual harassment and assault as long as women decide other issues are more important. That's what happened with Bill Clinton back in the 1990s and might have happened with Trump in 2016 — if only he knew how to steer the conversation away from himself. Luckily, he does not.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.