Slut-Shaming And The Presidential Candidates

"This is a watershed moment in recognizing the mindset that creates the foundation for assault: slut-shaming."

10/28/2016 02:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 31, 2016
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images

We are at a pivotal moment in public conversation about the sexual objectification of women. The claim that feminists have been making for decades—that grabbing or kissing someone without consent constitutes sexual assault—is finally understood and acknowledged.

This can also be a watershed moment in recognizing the mindset that creates the foundation for assault: slut-shaming. Looking at Hillary Clinton’s past in addition to Donald Trump’s helps us understand how far we have come.

Back in the 1990s, Hillary Clinton engaged in slut-shaming: she denigrated the credibility of women who claimed they had been sexually involved with or abused by her husband, Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton’s supporters should address this piece of her history head-on instead of burying it. Betsey Wright, then a close advisor to the Clintons, told The New York Times earlier this month that discussing this history is “dredging up irrelevant slime from the past.” But acknowledging Clinton’s tactics from over two decades ago and putting them in cultural context is necessary to show how much Clinton—and awareness about slut-shaming—has grown.

Wright had been chief of staff to Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas, and during his presidential campaign was given the task of dealing with accusations of his infidelity.  She famously referred to women’s accusations of affairs with the governor as “bimbo eruptions.” Reportedly with Hillary Clinton’s permission and guidance, the 1992 campaign hired a private investigator to discredit the character of Gennifer Flowers, who had sold her story to a supermarket tabloid about having an affair with Bill Clinton, and to dig up and then publicize disparaging accounts about her and anyone else who might come forward with claims of an affair or coerced sexual acts.

Although it’s unclear to what extent Hillary Clinton herself was involved in these measures, she did say at the time that Flowers was “some failed cabaret singer who doesn’t even have much of a résumé to fall back on.” She told the journalist Gail Sheehy, who was profiling her at the time for Vanity Fair, that if she had the chance to cross-examine Flowers, “I would crucify her.” And according to George Stephanopoulos, the communications director of the 1992 campaign, Hillary Clinton made a similar statement after Connie Hamzy claimed in Penthouse that Bill Clinton had once propositioned her at a hotel in Little Rock.  “We have to destroy her story,” she told him—after which the campaign collected affidavits from aides who said that the story was false because they were with the governor at the time.

Today, feminists point out that attacking the credibility and character of women, especially those who claim they’ve been assaulted, because of their sexuality is sexist; doing so perpetuates a sexual double standard in which men have license to be sexually promiscuous yet women do not.  But Hillary Clinton, born in 1947, grew up in an era when girls and women were divided into two categories: “good” girls and “tramps” or “sluts”—and no one questioned this division. It’s hardly surprising that she internalized the message that boys will be boys, and girls will be sluts. Like implicit racial bias, which she rightly described during the first presidential candidate debate as a “problem for everyone, not just police,” many people unconsciously call up sexist stereotypes about sexually active women as deviant and even disgusting. After all, this is the mindset many of us were socially conditioned to believe is natural and true. 

This doesn’t make what Hillary Clinton did forgivable.  But it makes her behavior over two decades ago a little bit more understandable.

In 1992, the language to think and talk about slut-shaming did not yet exist.  I coined the term “slut-bashing” in my 1999 book about teenage girls who are judged, shamed, and policed because they are presumed to engage in non-normative sexual behavior (even though in many cases, I found, the girls had zero sexual experience and had never even kissed anyone).  In the early 2000s, “slut-bashing” morphed into “slut-shaming,” and with the rise of social media, awareness of the pervasiveness of slut-shaming—among adult women as well as teenage girls―exploded.  By 2005, when Donald Trump said that because he was famous he could do anything he wants to women without their consent, including grab them by the genitals, slut-shaming was already being widely condemned. Today we have a global protest movement of SlutWalks that fight back against sexual objectification and rape culture, and woe to the celebrity who criticizes a Kim Kardashian nude selfie.

Hillary Clinton has long since established that she is an advocate for women.  She holds the strongest record on reproductive rights of any presidential candidate in American history. As senator, she introduced equal pay legislation three times and led efforts to address violence against women. And to survivors of sexual assault, she has said, “Don’t let anyone silence your voice. You have the right to be heard.”  

Meanwhile, Trump continues to sexually objectify and ridicule women for their appearance.

Slut-shaming, like implicit racial bias, is something most of us have to unlearn and overcome to be better people.  Only one candidate has shown that she is on this journey.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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