“They’re lies,” Melania Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a lengthy interview Monday night. Melania was referring to the nearly dozen women who have accused her husband, Donald Trump, of sexually assaulting them. “I believe my husband, I believe my husband,” she repeated, as she turned the blame to the “left-wing media.” Women, Melania continued, were constantly propositioning her husband. She then alluded to the “inappropriate stuff” women said and did to her husband, notably conflating sexual assault with sex.
Truth and lies stood on opposite ends. Melania’s husband was in possession of the truth in her estimation and, quite simply, women were scheming and lying. Her interview reflected a series of familiar dichotomies: the rational man and the irrational woman; the naturally potent man and the scheming woman who looks to exploit that appetite for her own gain. These metaphors of gender—already overburdened—were exhausted by Melania, just as they have been by Donald Trump.
It’s as exhausted this year as the imperative to “believe women,” which has become a standard catchphrase, a shorthand to implore listeners to disengage from a long history in which sexual assault victims were discredited, shamed, and denied. There’s no doubt that still happens, as it did in Melania’s interview, and there’s no doubt that women deserve the benefit of the justice system, rather than its derision.
Melania’s interview had shades of Hillary Clinton’s 1998 sit-down with the Today Show, as it was likely meant to. In that interview, Clinton coined the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy,” in response to a number of both bitter rumors and scandals that haunted her own husband, including Monica Lewinsky. Later, Clinton said that she regretted the phrase, not because of its implications, but because it “became an excuse for not looking at what was clearly a concerted political effort against the Clinton administration.” Beyond Bill Clinton’s consensual, yet troubling, relationship with Lewinsky, there were other women who accused President Clinton of rape and sexual assault. Their names are familiar—Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey—cudgels in an election that has increasingly become a referendum about the emptiness of that phrase: “Believe women.”
Its application is both elusive and frustratingly broad. It’s become even more so in an election cycle where sexual assault and rape allegations have become so routine, so familiar, that the stories almost seem plagiarized. If, as the phrase demands, we believe all women, then the claims of Bill Clinton’s accusers are just as valid as Trump’s accusers.
And yet the response, on either side, has hardly been a resounding embrace of it. Rather, sexual assault and victims have both been little more than a political weapon, in which believing women is deployed only as an act of destruction. On one side of the political aisle, the women who have accused the Republican candidate of sexually assaulting them are ridiculed; their looks disparaged, their allegations turned into part of a shadowy conspiracy. The Trump campaign has called the allegations “totally and absolutely false,” “outright lies,” and “pure fiction.” Trump’s supporters laugh and agree with him, wearing shirts that accuse Bill Clinton of being a rapist or chanting “lock her up” in the direction of any woman who might present a challenge to their candidate’s authority. Trump might better say, Believe the women I want you to believe; believe women only when implored by a powerful man.
Implicit to “believe women” is an imperative to speak out, to publicly support women who allege sexual assault. A full-page ad representing 3,000 rape victims, paid for by UltraViolet and MoveOn, condemned Trump for participating in a culture where one in five women experience sexual assault. “When survivors of sexual assault come forward, they are too often blamed, shamed and disbelieved,” the copy reads. “Donald Trump’s bragging teaches men that they can get away with it—and your silence means you stood by and watched.” “Your silence” is an accusation ostensibly aimed at Trump supporters, but it has broader implications.
As women line up to accuse Trump, as websites publish essays comparing Trump to serial rapist Bill Cosby, arguing that the outrage following Trump’s pussy comment was disingenuous, fueled only by our willful disbelief of women, Hillary Clinton has been relatively silent about the allegations against her husband. Sure, as many have pointed out, President Clinton is not running for re-election and Hillary Clinton should not be held accountable for his actions. It is sexist and ridiculous to demand that a woman bear moral responsibility for the alleged actions of her husband. But there is a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between holding Clinton accountable for her husband and questioning her personal and professional relationship with a man accused of multiple sexual assaults. Clinton has depicted herself as a champion of women and many of her gender-focused policies are appealing, and yet she remains silent on a key issue.
This isn’t to imply some kind of moral equivalency between Trump’s actions and Clinton’s silence. There is none. There is only a comparative equivocation. “To every survivor of sexual assault... You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed. We’re with you,” Clinton wrote in a signed tweet in September 2015. Later, in December, Clinton amended that statement when she was asked during a campaign stop about Broaddrick, Willey, and Jones’s accusations. “Well, I would say that everyone should be believed at first,” Clinton replied. “Until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
It was an evasive answer. Bill Clinton’s accusers were to be “disbelieved,” a way to discredit them without outright calling them liars, without resorting to the ugly tactics employed later by Trump. It was a good enough answer for Clinton’s supporters, who cheered at her response. Sexual assault allegations quickly turned into infidelity, equating the claims of Broaddrick, Willey, and Jones with the consensual affairs of Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers.
Clinton’s silence has been, perhaps, one of the biggest weaknesses of her campaign. Unable to use the “believe women” stock phrase or its sentiment, surrogates like Michelle Obama have been left to address the allegations against Trump. But what could Clinton say about the allegations, about believing women, about who is a reliable narrator? How could she speak without looking either like a victim or a villain?
What this election has made stunningly clear is that the imperative “believe women” is an empty one. It’s a catchy phrase and its sentiment is earnest and good, yet important nuance slips through the phrase. The truth, particularly about sexual assault, is still subject to ownership, to systems of power that see victimhood only as an abstract state to be seized upon for the perpetuation of that power. It’s perhaps most telling that the convenient deployment of “believe women” has served two people in this election: Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.