There's a right and a wrong way to respond to the accusations about Donald Trump's alleged extramarital affairs, all of which he has denied. We're entitled to morally evaluate the president, since his character shapes his job performance. Another common response is more problematic, however: When men cheat on their wives, we react by placing those women under the microscope. A new Marist poll asking whether Melania should leave Donald exemplifies this tendency. It's sexist, and it needs to stop.
The survey was conducted in the wake of accusations that Trump had had an affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels, but prior to the Thursday's news story about his alleged involvement with Playboy model Karen MacDougal. Both reported relationships took place less than two years after Trump married Melania, and shortly after she'd given birth to their first and only child together, Barron. Trump continues to deny that either one occurred.
According to the poll, 34 percent of Americans believe that Melania should leave her husband, assumedly over his alleged infidelity. Among those who thought she should stay with Donald, a majority were male and Republican.
The survey gave responders only three options: 1. Melania should leave Donald; 2. she should stay with him; 3. "unsure." Participants were not able to choose options like "I don't have an opinion" or "Melania should make her own decision."
"Unsure" implies that a responder has tried and failed to come to a decision — i.e. that they do believe that they have the authority for an opinion on the matter. Using language like this encourages the idea that we should be weighing in on a stranger's marital decisions.
Of course, we have the right to publicly debate what people should be doing in their marriages. But when it happens in the public sphere, and these conversations are flavored with sexism, they become inappropriate.
These discussions frequently frame the question of whether or not a wife should leave a cheating husband as a moral question. Actually, it is a personal dilemma that does not have a right or wrong answer and therefore does not warrant outside judgment. Conversations about a husband's infidelity often place the responsibility for dealing with it on the wife, as though it's her burden to decide the future of their marriage. Less focus is put on the husband's burden to figure out his behavior.
This framework places husbands and wives within traditional and problematic gender roles: the woman is the moral force trying to contain the man's natural wildness and lust. Having these discussions often implies that we think we know what's best for women more than they do — a deeply condescending perspective.
Another obvious example is Hillary Clinton's choice to stay with Bill while he cheated on her with multiple women. She, too, was highly scrutinized for that decision and was often forced to publicly justify it. In fact, in its report about the new Melania poll, Marist noted that a similar survey had been taken for a U.S. News & World Report after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal (the parameters of that poll were the same: yes, no, or unsure). Much has been written to indulge the many "avid consumers of the Clinton marital analysis," as a Washington Post column called them in 2007. More ink seems to have been spilt trying to understand Hillary's reasons for staying with Bill than deciphering Bill's decision to cheat and what it might say about his character and the way our country socializes men.
Like Melania Trump, Hillary Clinton doesn't owe anyone an explanation of why she is still married to Bill. (Of course, for anyone who's interested, she actually has publicly given reasons for her decision — most recently for What Happened, in which she admits, "There were times that I was deeply unsure about whether our marriage could or should survive," and then says: "On those days I asked myself the question that mattered most to me: Do I still love him? And can I still be in this marriage without becoming unrecognizable to myself — twisted by anger, resentment, or remoteness. The answers were always yes. So I kept going.")
Clinton is also careful to note in the book, "I don't believe our marriage is anyone's business."
Staying with a partner who's cheated on you is different than covering up for sexual assault. The issue of whether Hillary Clinton actively worked to discredit Bill's accusers — there are many differing accounts on this — is worth debate and must be considered separately from her decision to remain in her marriage.
Let's stop weighing in on whether or not Melania should leave Donald. Scrutinizing her decision is inappropriate and a waste of our time.
Editor's Note: This perspective is reflective of the author's opinion, and is part of a larger, feminist discourse.