On Sunday, a Hillary Clinton campaign event in New Hampshire was briefly disrupted when a female Republican state legislator shouted questions about past sexual assault accusations against the Democratic candidate’s husband. The protester was rebuffed by Clinton and booed by her supporters. But the ugly claims against Bill Clinton are certain to come back to haunt Hillary Clinton, Democrats, and feminists for the rest of this campaign. Will the questions affect the election — and the conversation about judging allegations of sexual violence?
The sex scandals cast a shadow over the Clinton presidency in the 1990s, culminating in the 1998 impeachment. They also caused much turmoil for feminism. Leading feminist activists such as Gloria Steinem and then-National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland were harshly criticized for backing Bill Clinton and abandoning the women he was accused of abusing.
Today, the same issues are hounding Hillary Clinton, who chose to stand by her man and, critics say, to smear his accusers. Some conservatives have compared Bill Clinton with disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, formally charged last week with sexual assault on one of his 50-plus alleged victims, and even trolled liberals by blaming Clinton’s impunity on racism.
The Cosby-Clinton comparison is nonsense. Cosby is accused of drugging and assaulting dozens of women (many of whom complained before any publicity). Bill Clinton was accused of rape by Juanita Broaddrick and of sexual harassment by Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey, who both claimed he made aggressive unwelcome advances but ultimately took no for an answer. The only way to bring his alleged victim count into the double digits is to include not only elusive rumors but consensual liaisons with adult women like Arkansas model Gennifer Flowers and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. However morally and ethically questionable, given that he was married and held public office, to equate these relationships with assault is to demean real victims.
Broaddrick’s claims are troubling; her story has some contradictions, but it also has credible details. However, the lack of similar allegations in more than 30 years boosts Bill Clinton’s past denials. If there’s a pattern in Clinton’s case, it’s of consensual adulterous relationships.
While Hillary Clinton’s predicament was probably inevitable, she almost certainly made it worse by embracing the “Believe the victims” slogan on the campaign trail. At an event in Iowa last year, she declared, “I want to send a message to every survivor of sexual assault . . . You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed and we’re with you.” The hypocrisy seemed glaring. When challenged on the issue, she had to give the awkward explanation that victims must be believed until the evidence proves otherwise.
Just like in the 1990s, many conservative Republicans will undoubtedly jump on the bandwagon of women-as-victims feminism for political gain — while many liberal Democrats will make mental contortions to stay on that bandwagon but reject the Clinton charges. Regardless of where one stands politically, it would be far better to have a real debate on how to approach allegations of sexual abuse. We should acknowledge that accusations do not equal guilt, that women (or men) who say they were sexually assaulted deserve to be taken seriously but do not automatically deserve to be believed, and that ethically questionable sexual behavior is not always criminal.
If such a rethinking of feminist ideology takes place, Hillary Clinton’s campaign will have done America a real if unintentional service.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.