Nearly 20 years ago, the world shamed Monica Lewinsky. She was labeled a slut and national disgrace. Her name became a verb, used in pop culture to reference making a mess of a dress. She was a 22-year old White House intern in her first job after college. Bill Clinton was the most powerful man in the world.
Their relationship “was not sexual assault,” Lewinsky writes in Vanity Fair, speaking out on #MeToo for the first time, “although we now recognize that it constituted a gross abuse of power.”
Still, she doesn’t deny her own responsibility for what happened.
“I meet Regret every day,” she writes.
The whole affair surfaced in early 1998. As the #MeToo movement sweeps the US today, many conversations about sexual harassment, consent, and workplace relationships are not perceptibly different from the days of Lewinsky’s torment, or the time of Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Clarence Thomas. Yet, as Gloria Steinem stated in December, “Clearly, at this moment in time [women] are gaining our voices in a way that has never happened before…we are kind of at a tidal wave point right now. But we need to remember that this all started over 40 years ago.”
The inconvenient heritage of the workplace means dismissing Lewinsky’s perspective is ignorant and short-sighted. The misogyny she endured is systemic, and centuries strong. It will not dissipate any time soon. And her insight on the past isn’t just wise—her words can show us where we are going.
In 2017, nearly two decades after he dragged her through a 13-month investigation, Lewinsky met independent prosecutor Ken Starr for the first time in-person. Having endured years of trauma and therapy, she says she was able to tell him point-blank that he terrorized not only her, but also her entire family: “‘Though I wish I had made different choices back then,’ I stammered, ‘I wish that you and your office had made different choices, too.’ In hindsight, I later realized, I was paving the way for him to apologize. But he didn’t. He merely said, with the same inscrutable smile, ‘I know. It was unfortunate.'”
It was a flimsy response for a life sentence of shame. “Unfortunate” as the scandal and its fallout were, they acted as a cultural tsunami of sorts, a step toward the progress #MeToo would eventually bring.
“As I find myself reflecting on what happened, I’ve also come to understand how my trauma has been, in a way, a microcosm of a larger, national one,” writes Lewinsky, thinking back on Starr’s drawn-out investigation of her, her family, and nearly everyone she knew:
Both clinically and observationally, something fundamental changed in our society in 1998, and it is changing again as we enter the second year of the Trump presidency in a post-Cosby-Ailes-O’Reilly-Weinstein-Spacey-Whoever-Is-Next world. The Starr investigation and the subsequent impeachment trial of Bill Clinton amounted to a crisis that Americans arguably endured collectively—some of us, obviously, more than others. It was a shambolic morass of a scandal that dragged on for 13 months, and many politicians and citizens became collateral damage—along with the nation’s capacity for mercy, measure, and perspective.
Certainly, the events of that year did not constitute a war or a terrorist attack or a financial recession. They didn’t constitute a natural catastrophe or a medical pandemic or what experts refer to as ‘Big T’ traumas. But something had shifted nonetheless. And even after the Senate voted in 1999 to acquit President Clinton on two articles of impeachment, we could not escape the sense of upheaval and partisan division that lingered, settled in, and stayed.
Maybe you remember or have heard stories about how “the scandal” saturated television and radio; newspapers, magazines, and the Internet; Saturday Night Live and the Sunday-morning opinion programs; dinner-party conversation and watercooler discussions; late-night monologues and political talk shows (definitely the talk shows). In the Washington Post alone, there were 125 articles written about this crisis—in just the first 10 days. Many parents felt compelled to discuss sexual issues with their children earlier than they might have wanted to.
The cultural saturation Lewinsky describes closely mirrors the #MeToo upheaval following the Weinstein exposés. As sexual-harassment allegations abound and powerful men continue falling from grace, industry leaders, parents, and politicians are all finding themselves facing moral conflicts, awkward conversations, and potentially career-altering backlash should they side with the alleged harasser, not the survivor.
Such was not the case when Bill Clinton was in the line of fire.
“‘I’m so sorry you were so alone.’ Those seven words undid me. They were written in a recent private exchange I had with one of the brave women leading the #MeToo movement,” writes Lewinsky. “Somehow, coming from her—a recognition of sorts on a deep, soulful level—they landed in a way that cracked me open and brought me to tears. Yes, I had received many letters of support in 1998. And, yes (thank God!), I had my family and friends to support me. But by and large I had been alone. So. Very. Alone. Publicly Alone—abandoned most of all by the key figure in the crisis, who actually knew me well and intimately. That I had made mistakes, on that we can all agree. But swimming in that sea of Aloneness was terrifying.”
Given mainstream American culture’s discomfort with women’s sexual agency and sexuality at large, Lewinsky’s decision to engage with the president sexually was bound to incite hate and disgust—even with the support of a small subset of progressive feminists. Because without making pariahs of independent, sexually interested women—women who are willing to buck monogamy’s norms to pursue their own desire—the institution of heterosexual marriage, patriarchy’s most-beloved deception, cannot stand.
And yet, in Lewinsky’s eyes, the #MeToo momentum offering so many women redemption today could have saved her then, and may still save her now. As she writes:
Isolation is such a powerful tool to the subjugator. And yet I don’t believe I would have felt so isolated had it all happened today…If the Internet was a bête noire to me in 1998, its stepchild—social media—has been a savior for millions of women today (notwithstanding all the cyberbullying, online harassment, doxing, and slut-shaming). Virtually anyone can share her or his #MeToo story and be instantly welcomed into a tribe.
Whereas decentralized digital spaces hold significant power today, “the president and his minions” held total control over Lewinsky’s narrative. One might guess that today’s widespread feminist acceptance would breed jealousy in a woman scapegoated so severely. Instead, she chooses awe:
There are many more women and men whose voices and stories need to be heard before mine…And yet, everywhere I have gone for the past few months, I’ve been asked about it. My response has been the same: I am in awe of the sheer courage of the women who have stood up and begun to confront entrenched beliefs and institutions. But as for me, my history, and how I fit in personally? I’m sorry to say I don’t have a definitive answer yet on the meaning of all of the events that led to the 1998 investigation; I am unpacking and reprocessing what happened to me. Over and over and over again….
The reason this is difficult is that I’ve lived for such a long time in the House of Gaslight, clinging to my experiences as they unfolded in my 20s and railing against the untruths that painted me as an unstable stalker and Servicer in Chief.
The truth is that she did service him, while also servicing herself. The dissonance of this situation is at the heart of heteronormative sex—so inextricably wed to troublesome power dynamics yet also a means of liberation and self-care and pure pleasure.
Lewinsky’s life-long commitment to self-work and healing offers an invaluable roadmap for women suffering today. Her scandal may have been too soon for the #MeToo’s embrace, but in welcoming its progress and stepping toward its solutions, she epitomizes the movement’s mission, so beautifully stated by the its founder, civil rights activist Tarana Burke. “This is not really a movement about trauma—it’s a movement about joy,” Burke told Quartz. “It’s a movement about love and about respect, and it’s about finding the ways that we can cultivate those things in our lives so that we can use them to combat the trauma we’ve experienced.”
The cultivation of love is the metronome to Lewinsky’s resistance. “Through all of this, during the past several months, I have been repeatedly reminded of a powerful Mexican proverb: ‘They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.’ Spring has finally sprung.”