Photo: Steve Azzara/Corbis.
This article was originally published on May, 9 2014.
I was eight when Monica Lewinsky became famous for giving a blow job. I remember her only in the abstract: reading her name over and over again in my parents' newspaper at the breakfast table, seeing the same photos of her smiling with the President. I had no idea who she was, or what she had done. I just knew that everyone hated her.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon Lewinsky's in-the-thick-of-the-scandal interview with Barbara Walters from 1999. By then, of course, I knew the bare bones of what had happened: She had an affair — but not "sexual relations" — with Bill Clinton when she was a White House intern. She was 21 when the affair began, and she claimed to be in love with him.
Looking back, my lack of context and emotional baggage definitely affected the way I saw her in that interview: I was completely, inexplicably riveted. I wasn't sick to death of hearing about the blue dress, or Linda Tripp, or the cigar. I didn't have any sort of anger or bitterness or disgust toward her. All I saw was a young woman at the end of her rope, being dragged into the depths of humiliation in front of 74 million people. She was raw, she was emotional, and she was human. I knew she was a global punch line, but I found myself strangely full of respect for her honesty and candor — for her ability to keep her composure in the face of unimaginable pressure and shame.
This week finds everyone's favorite sex scandal being necromanced from its shadowy grave. In the years since, of course, all parties involved have theoretically moved on. Bill Clinton is now a prominent vegan who heroically rescues American journalists from North Korea; now, more than ever, he can do no wrong. Hillary, the only person who was arguably more screwed by the whole thing than Monica, has evolved from scorned wife to diplomatic hero to the presumptive first female President of the United States. (Although, I'd like to point out that while Bill hasn't had to deal publicly with the scandal in decades, Hillary still can't shake those hurtful, nasty Monica questions).
Which brings us back to Monica. Her recent Vanity Fair essay is hardly groundbreaking. She tells the same story she has always told: that the affair was consensual, that she regrets what happened, and that she has had trouble finding gainful employment despite a degree from the London School of Economics. What's much more interesting is the way the media have dealt with the Return of Monica after her 10 years spent (somewhat) under the radar. The NY Post has called her "whiny" and a "shame-filled recluse," while the LA Times had this gem to say: "We all know the story: In 1998, a horny 21-year-old White House intern flashes her thong at a horny commander-in-chief. A bad affair ensues." Jezebel doesn't seem to understand why we're "giving Monica Lewinsky 15 more minutes" of fame. To me, though, it seems like we all still have a lot to learn from what happened in 1998 — and from a woman who has remained strong after being crucified over and over again for having consensual sex.
Perhaps the perfect illustration of just how little we've progressed in the way we deal with female sexuality is the ABC show Scandal, which takes Monica's story and blows it out into a soapy extravaganza of sex, tears, and politics. The show's titular scandal involves Olivia Pope (a successful, cutthroat Washington power player), whose fatal flaw is her affair with the President (a handsome, charming, but ultimately toxic and ineffectual man with Teflon skin). Their sexual relationship doesn't just bring about a Monica-style media feeding frenzy; it drains and distracts Pope, rendering her less than the woman we know she is, while the President walks away without a scratch.
Meanwhile, in order to cover up their affair, an innocent female staffer is arbitrarily framed and thrown to the dogs — eviscerated in the press in a way that's meant to feel all too familiar. That this sort of unbalanced sexual politics feels realistic and timely in 2014 is at once saddening and unsurprising. Just like in 1998, we continue to use women's sexuality to tear them down.
Even 16 years later, Monica remains a relevant example of the double standard women face when it comes to sexuality. Our culture still lacks the vocabulary to talk about women except in terms of where they fall on the "slut" continuum; while men can emerge unscathed from sex scandals and go on to bigger and better things, women remain stuck in the proverbial mud. It's no coincidence that Beyoncé, who is one of the most widely-embraced voices of our generation and is lauded for proudly and publicly delving into her own sexuality, refers to the act of male ejaculation as "Monica Lewinsky-ing" (not "Bill Clinton-ing") in her song "Partition." Whether directly or obliquely, we continue to shame women just for having sex.
And, it's not just women. In her Vanity Fair essay, Lewinsky points to Tyler Clementi — whose shame after being caught kissing a man led him to suicide — as her inspiration for coming forward again after all this time. It's an interesting connection, and speaks to the fact that our culture has a nasty habit of stigmatizing any sexuality other than that of straight (white) men. For even more proof, look no further than Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar winner who was disinvited to speak at his alma mater after photos of him having sex with his boyfriend surfaced on the Internet.
After reading about Clementi, Lewinsky says, "My own suffering took on a different meaning. Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation. The question became: How do I find and give a purpose to my past?" Regardless of what Jezebel or the LA Times might say, I think Monica's past — and our present — serve to remind us of how much we still have to learn about treating women with respect. As far as I'm concerned, Monica can have as many more minutes as she wants.