“I don’t actually know why this whole story became about oral sex,” Monica Lewinsky said in an HBO documentary that aired four years after the scandal that would lead to the impeachment of Bill Clinton. The question that led to this response — “How does it feel to be America’s premier blowjob queen?” — is how she opens her recent essay for Vanity Fair.
It’s been 13 years since that documentary was filmed, but Lewinsky’s answer is still pertinent. Just how did this moment in American politics become about oral sex — and, more specifically, about the woman who engaged in it?
It started with the 1993 suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster, which some viewed as suspicious. The Clintons were implicated in a number of conspiracy theories surrounding the death. As independent counsel, Kenneth Starr looked at the circumstances involving the death of Foster, whose suicide note led to questions about the firing of White House staff in the Travel Office, which led to discovering improper access to FBI files, which led to other allegations of corruption and abuse in the Clinton White House. Among these were a series of shady business deals surrounding the Whitewater Development Corporation that implicated Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas, as well as the use of state troopers as cover for his trysts, which led to the sexual harassment suit filed by Paula Jones in 1994.
It was basically a $70 million fishing expedition, which turned up so little evidence of anything actionable that we ended up with a report that mentioned sex and other words for sex 548 times, Whitewater only twice and the firings in connection with the Travel Office zero times. Additionally, Starr said there was no evidence connecting the Clintons to inappropriate access of FBI files. (I use the term “fishing expedition” to illustrate how little was discovered in the wake of abuse of power allegations surrounding the Clinton Administration and not to dismiss the importance of investigating such allegations in our government. I think the fact that we can investigate high- and low-ranking officials is a sign of a healthy democracy.)
The problem with this story arises when Monica Lewinsky enters the conversation — as an attempt by attorneys in the Paula Jones case to show Bill Clinton had a history of inappropriate workplace behavior. Monica Lewinsky had been subpoenaed to testify about her relationship with Clinton and lied. It was Linda Tripp, another employee at the Pentagon where Lewinsky was working and a friend of hers, who testified about Lewinsky’s involvement with the president, and compelled Starr to offer Lewinsky immunity on condition that she reveal the truth about her relationship with Clinton. Lewinsky’s testimony was then used to impeach Bill Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, since he had lied about his involvement with her while under testifying under oath in the Paula Jones case.
Because this was the only thing to go on, the Starr Report effectively became a blow-by-blow of Clinton’s affair with his then-21-year-old intern.
Sexual words may appear over 500 times in the document, but Lewinsky’s name appears 3,146 times, along with 44 of her e-mails and several unsent letters that Lewinsky wrote on her computer and then deleted — letters that were recovered by investigators and unscrupulously posted on the internet as evidence, by Starr.
This is how an investigation of power abuse allegations became a story about a young woman who engaged in fellatio.
Members of the conservative Right wanted to see the liberal Clinton go down — they dug up and distorted as much as they could in an effort to see it happen. In fighting back, the liberal Left hit back just as hard — with equally questionable tactics. In the middle of this political clash stood a 24-year-old named Monica Lewinsky.
The Right saw her as ammunition. The Left saw her as a liability and moved quickly to discredit her, painting her as a woman prone to wild flights of fantasy, a stalker, at first. Later, they would paint her as a sexual predator who cornered the six-foot-two leader of the free world in his highly secure office and forced him to accept sexual gratification from her.
The leaders of the feminist movement who had led the conversation during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy in 1991, the ones who had come out in force the following year in support of the women speaking out against Republican senator from Oregon and serial harasser Robert Packwood, didn’t come to Lewinsky’s defense when the Clinton damage control machine determined that the best course of action was to bulldoze her. The reasons from the feminist camp were technical: Lewinsky wasn’t sexually harassed. She wasn’t coerced. Twenty-four is old enough to make our own choices.
This is very true. But just because someone isn’t a victim doesn’t mean it’s okay to ridicule, humiliate and slander them, which is what the politically-driven media machine did. In her Vanity Fair essay, Lewinsky writes that the abuse she suffered didn’t happen during the affair, but in the aftermath. She might not have been too young to make decisions about her sex life, but she was, as she writes, “too young to see that I would be sacrificed for political expediency.”
Lewinsky references a New York Observer article that ran a week after the scandal first broke, a sort of round-table discussion among ten prominent New York women, many of them feminists, about the Lewinsky affair. In her essay, Lewinsky responds to some of the claims made by the powerful women in attendance — women she wished had been there for her during that difficult time — many of whom only seemed to find it in themselves to assert that they kind of liked that Clinton was a sexual man. Their comments and insinuations about Lewinsky — that she was an example of Clinton’s “recklessness to pick the wrong women,” “not that pretty,” “some not-brilliant woman in the Oval Office,” “father-obsessed,” a doormat for giving without receiving, among others — seem to still sting.
But the same article reveals an interesting question that is at the heart of Lewinsky’s essay: “Why did the public opinion overwhelmingly support Anita Hill, whereas Monica Lewinsky nobody has any sympathy for?” as Kaite Roiphe put it. Francine Prose, who’d later write up the piece for the Observer, responded to that question: “I mean, I wanted Clarence Thomas out of there. You know, so I was willing to go with Anita Hill.” Prose, like so many other feminist women, didn’t want Clinton “out of there.”
“The chief reason for feminists’ continued support of Clinton is clear: Clinton is their guy,” wrote Marjorie Williams in a 1998 article for Vanity Fair, in which she referred to Clinton’s two terms as the “Gaslight Presidency,” in reference to the movie which would give the name to a kind of psychological abuse that seeks destroy a victim’s trust in his or her own perception or memory.
“Finally, feminists have a special responsibility to loathe the lies, implicit and explicit, with which Clinton has consistently tried to cover his tracks: feminism, at its core, is about helping women to respect what is true over what is convenient,” Williams wrote. “It’s bad enough that Clinton has hidden behind an endless chain of women to protect him from the consequences of his actions: from Betsey Wright, the longtime aide who contained ‘bimbo eruptions’ for him in 1992, to Hillary and Chelsea — whistled home from Stanford, while classes were in session, to take part in a tender father-daughter photo op nine days after the scandal broke — to Betty Currie, the loyal secretary who will leave the Clinton White House with a mountain of legal bills. Must he hide behind the rest of us too?”
Through Lewinsky’s essay, we can see how this played out. Feminist leaders did nothing to support a young woman, or try to prevent her from becoming a scapegoat and a joke. It’s been almost twenty years and short of a few bit parts on television and a few endorsement deals, Lewinsky has had little success getting employment because of her “history,” and continues to be the butt of the joke. Meanwhile, the former president continues to enjoy the talk circuit, has four best-selling books, and was even invited to take the stage for Obama during his reelection campaign, with some saying that he “won” the election for Obama.
Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were tried in the court of public opinion for the same “offense.” But the whole thing seems to have brushed right off the man while remaining forever branded on the woman.
“With every marital indiscretion that finds its way into the public sphere — many of which involve male politicians — it always seems like the woman conveniently takes the fall,” writes Lewinsky in the June issue of Vanity Fair. “Sure, the Anthony Weiners and Eliot Spitzers do what they need to do to look humiliated on cable news. They bow out of public life for a while, but they inevitably return, having put it all behind them. The women in these imbroglios return to lives that are not so easily repaired.”
If the number of columns — mostly by women — which have come out since Lewinsky’s essay was announced is any indication, life for the former intern will remain difficult to repair.
Writing for the New York Post, Andrea Peyser told Lewinsky to “use your special talents to forge an exciting new career in whatever it is you do best,” referring to the sex act with which her name has become synonymous — the blowjob — in an echo of the Observer discussion that suggested Lewinsky make her living post-scandal “rent[ing] out her mouth.”
For the Los Angeles Times, Robin Abcarian wagged her finger, pointing at the flimsy list of television appearances Lewinsky made and random gigs she held between 1999 and 2005 as though Lewinsky has successfully leveraged being pigeonholed as a “zaftig seductress” to attain a wildly successful career. Abcarian advised her to stop “allowing herself to be defined by the worst mistake she ever made,” “stop exploiting the past” and “move on,” as though it’s this essay that brought her back to public attention and not statements made by Rand Paul, ever hopeful he’ll get the Republican presidential nomination by taking the first swing at the Clintons.
Jezebel held back its usual tirades against slut-shaming, choosing instead to make a jab about how Lewinsky is wearing a “virginal” white dress in the Vanity Fair photo spread. Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post followed suit, focusing on Lewinsky’s looks with a column titled, “Sit Up Straight, Ms. Lewinsky.” In a horrific flashback to 1998, Marcus infantilized Lewinsky, writing, “If I were Monica’s friend — or her mother — I would never have allowed it.” She mentions Lewinsky is forty in the previous sentence, but it doesn’t matter — that’s what we turned her into, a thing suspended in time somewhere between a naive child who doesn’t know better and a sexual object we’re entitled to look at and critique for our own amusement, arousal or schadenfreude.
Maureen Dowd, who made a career leap writing about how Monica Lewinsky, through Hillary Clinton, catalyzed the death of feminism for the New York Times, wasted zero time telling the old story she told everyone back then about how Lewinsky berated her at the Bombay Club (Chelsea Clinton’s favorite restaurant! she reminded everyone, like Lewinsky should have had the courtesy of never setting foot anywhere the Clintons went ever again, which is to say: all of Washington) before Lewinsky went to the bathroom and had a nervous breakdown on the phone with her publicist. Of course, back then, this anecdote was used to imply that Lewinsky was emotionally volatile and possibly unhinged. In this go-around, Dowd used it to illustrate how pitiful Lewinsky was — and still is. Dowd described the Vanity Fair essay — to which she refers as Lewinsky’s “keening about her own social collapse” — as “a Golden Oldie tour of a band you didn’t want to hear in the first place.”
It is, as Nia-Malika Henderson pointed out at the Washington Post, pretty much more of the same treatment Lewinsky got before: vilified, ridiculed, dismissed.
Is it so surprising that Lewinsky no longer considers herself a “feminist with a captal F,” as she writes in her essay?
“I still have a deep respect for feminism and am thankful for the great strides the movement has made in advancing women’s rights over the past few decades,” she writes, but: “The movement’s leaders failed in articulating a position that was not essentially anti-woman during the witch hunt of 1998.”
But there is hope in the number of media outlets that have risen to point out our gross double-standard. The previously-mentioned Henderson at the Washington Post; Emily Shire at the DailyBeast, whose post title “Stop Slut-Shaming Monica Lewinsky!” says it all; Amanda Hess at Slate, who took the time to spell out how Maureen Dowd rode Lewinsky to a Pulitzer; Allie Jones at the Wire who took Ruth Marcus and Maureen Dowd to task for their focus on Lewinsky’s looks; and Jessica Bennett’s Time piece articulating why we owe Monica Lewinsky a collective apology and more.
We like to say hindsight is 20/20. A lot has happened on the Hill since Monica Lewinsky’s blue Gap dress took possession of the national imagination: more affairs, dalliances with sex workers, genitals blasted to the Twitterverse. And a lot has happened to us constituents, too — revenge porn, a grrowing awareness of the impact bullying and harassment — we even have a word for what Lewinsky lived through: “slut-shaming.”
Feminism accomplished great things in the 90s, but it has learned a lot of things since and it’s still learning. I hope that this time around, those of us who identify as feminists can give Lewinsky the support that we couldn’t give her then. We can start by burying the conspiracy theories about why she’s come forward now and what it means for Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations.
For too long Monica Lewinsky has been tied to the Clintons and the blow job. It’s time we recognized that she deserves a life as something other than a political football — perhaps even as a human who is much more than an ill-advised affair she had while she was in her early twenties.
Header image by TED Conference (Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0).