Monica Lewinsky may have consented to her mid-1990s affair with Bill Clinton, but the facts are thus: 1) she was in her early 20s and he was in his 50s, 2) he was her boss, and 3) he was President of the United States. In 1998, that was fodder for scathing tabloid headlines and late-night monologues, but in 2018, we know that the line between consent and coercion is much blurrier, and what happened to Lewinsky carries far more weight than mere scandal gone viral.
Indeed, as Lewinsky points out in a beautiful essay she penned for the March 2018 edition of Vanity Fair—which you should read in full—she is only just now able to grasp where her story, and the stories of women like her, find their place in the #MeToo movement. The subsequent outing of the Clinton scandal thrust both her and the nation into a “year of shame and spectacle,” as she describes it, one in which she felt alone and abandoned by both the public and by Clinton himself, who let the media rip her apart even though he “actually knew me well and intimately.” It wasn’t so different from the fates of women who spoke out about their abusers and found their stories dismissed and reputations dismantled. The difference, Lewinsky writes, is that thanks to the #MeToo moment, these women no longer have to speak out alone:
One of the most inspiring aspects of this newly energized movement is the sheer number of women who have spoken up in support of one another. And the volume in numbers has translated into volume of public voice. Historically, he who shapes the story (and it is so often a he) creates “the truth.” But this collective rise in decibel level has provided a resonance for women’s narratives. 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. In addition, the democratizing potential of the Internet to open up support networks and penetrate what used to be closed circles of power is something that was unavailable to me back then. Power, in that case, remained in the hands of the president and his minions, the Congress, the prosecutors, and the press.
Lewinsky also touches on the post-traumatic stress she took with her after becoming the nation’s punching bag. She notes that she might not have recognized the power imbalance between her and Clinton, and her place in the story, without the emergence of #MeToo, which finally gave her both the necessary language and community through which she could re-evaluate the narrative:
But it’s also complicated. Very, very complicated. The dictionary definition of “consent”? “To give permission for something to happen.” And yet what did the “something” mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age? Was the “something” just about crossing a line of sexual (and later emotional) intimacy? (An intimacy I wanted—with a 22-year-old’s limited understanding of the consequences.) He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college. (Note to the trolls, both Democratic and Republican: none of the above excuses me for my responsibility for what happened. I meet Regret every day.)
“This” (sigh) is as far as I’ve gotten in my re-evaluation; I want to be thoughtful. But I know one thing for certain: part of what has allowed me to shift is knowing I’m not alone anymore. And for that I am grateful.
There’s so much more good stuff in this piece—which starts off with a striking anecdote about her running into chief Clinton scandal investigator Ken Starr on Christmas Eve—but Lewinsky’s rumination on how #MeToo and Time’s Up has helped her and the rest of the country rethink a traumatic experience is perhaps the most important. The post-Harvey Weinstein world has brought to light just how many women’s lives were ruined to protect powerful men, in part because it’s so easy, in isolation, to see yourself as a willing participant, as someone who asked for it, as the sealer of your own fate. But there is power in numbers, and in community.
As Lewinsky puts it, “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.” But with #MeToo, the trauma—for her, for other women, for us—is starting to lift.