Why Can’t We Bring Ourselves to Support Monica Lewinsky?

blaming Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky is back, and on her own terms, in an essay for the magazine Vanity Fair. It took us a long time to get here — the relationship she writes about, with former U.S. president Bill Clinton, happened in 1995, when she was 21. It’s been nearly twenty years since the affair, over fifteen since its explosion in 1998, which led to the impeachment trial of Clinton.

In her piece, Lewinsky talks about the reality of life after scandal. She’s forty now, but despite a number of appearances on television and some endorsement deals banking on her titillating appeal, she’s had difficulty finding work suitable to her skill set. We may feel as though we’ve come very far from the days of the scarlet letter, but there is just no work in philanthropy or communication for a tainted woman.

What was her crime? Lewinsky did not betray her former lover’s confidence willingly. They had a short, kinky affair. It did not work out. It hurt. She shared this with a girlfriend who recorded their conversations and turned them over to Kenneth Starr for use against Clinton in an existing sexual harassment case. Lewinsky tried to suppress the affair. She failed. Despite the fact that her only offense was participating in an power-imbalanced affair with a married man who was also her boss, she has never been able to recover, while Clinton was acquitted of having lied under oath about having been involved with Lewinsky, and went on to blaze the talk circuit, write three best-selling books, and act as a surrogate for Barack Obama during the latter’s bid for the presidency in 2012. Some even said Clinton “won” the election for Obama. Same crime, different verdicts.

“I am determined to have a different ending to my story,” Lewinsky writes in Vanity Fair. “I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past. (What this will cost me, I will soon find out.)”

She recounts the impact that the story of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers student who was outed via webcam, bullied and shamed to the point of taking his own life, had on her. It has taken us a long time to accept that sticks and stones aren’t the only thing that can cause us harm — even serious harm. More and more studies are showing us the long-lasting effects of bullying, not only psychologically, but physically. Bullying changes us — and we’re finally realizing that this isn’t only a school-yard problem, but one that affects adults as well. Slut-shaming is only one of the many shapes this type of abuse can take, and while we’ve made some progress in this arena, one web search of “revenge porn” is all we need to be reminded of how much further we’ve yet to go.

“Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation,” Lewinsky writes. “The question became: How do I find and give a purpose to my past?”

She’s looking to get involved in helping empower victims of humiliation and harassment.

Unsurprisingly, a number of media outlets have jumped at the opportunity to ridicule and silence Lewinsky once more. Writing for the New York Post, Andrea Peyser told her 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 and which Beyonce immortalized in the song “Partition.”

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 — or even millions of dollars. Abcarian advises her to stop “allowing herself to be defined by the worst mistake she ever made,” stop “exploiting the past” and “move on.”

Jezebel, a blog that generally speaks loudly against slut-shaming, mocked Lewinsky’s decision to call attention to “‘the culture that put a 24-year-old through the wringer and […] feminists who joined the chorus'” in a magazine spread that depicts her in a “virginal” white dress.

Maureen Dowd, who made a career leap writing about how Monica Lewinsky catalyzed the death of feminism for the New York Times, wasted zero time parading the same story she told everyone back then about how Lewinsky berated her at the Bombay Club before going to the bathroom and having 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 uses it to illustrate how pitiful Lewinsky was — and still is. Dowd describes 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 points out at the Washington Post, pretty much more of the same treatment Lewinsky got before: vilified, ridiculed, dismissed.

Though at first I didn’t understand why Americans were so hung up on a president having sex, I did eventually come to understand the ideologies in play during the Lewinsky scandal. This point in American politics changed me in ways I can’t begin to express. There was a lot of talk about feminism dying. I didn’t see it dying — I saw it grappling with how long it had ignored anything that was “other.” There are a lot of “others” that feminism needs to come to terms with: women of other classes, women who aren’t white, women who are transgender, women who are sex workers. Progress has been and continues to be slow.

But there is hope in the number of media outlets that have risen to point out our gross double-standard. Henderson at the Washington Post; Emily Shire at the DailyBeast, whose post title “Stop Slut-Shaming Monica Lewinsky!” says it all; and Amanda Hess at Slate, who took the time to spell out how Maureen Dowd rode Lewinsky to a Pulitzer — and turned her into a sexual predator.

They say hindsight is 20/20. Maybe we should take this opportunity to look back on where we placed the blame here and grow from that.

Header image by Ian.