Monica Lewinsky is perhaps the woman who suffered the most public damage from a relationship that was a prime example of an abuse of power. The #MeToo movement has forced her to confront what happened between herself and President Bill Clinton almost 20 years ago.
In an essay in Vanity Fair for publication in March, Lewinsky examines how the #MeToo movement changed her thinking about her affair with the president, which she insisted at the time was consensual, writing: ”I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent.” (She describes it now as “very, very complicated.”)
Lewinsky’s affair with Clinton was made public during an investigation conducted by independent counsel Ken Starr that eventually led to Clinton’s impeachment for lying under oath about the relationship, among other things. He was later acquitted.
“Until recently (thank you, Harvey Weinstein), historians hadn’t really had the perspective to fully process and acknowledge that year of shame and spectacle,” Lewinsky writes. “And as a culture, we still haven’t properly examined it. Re-framed it. Integrated it. And transformed it. My hope, given the two decades that have passed, is that we are now at a stage where we can untangle the complexities and context (maybe even with a little compassion), which may help lead to an eventual healing — and a systemic transformation.”
Before there was #MeToo, there was Monica
Lewinsky was just 22 and an intern at the White House when she had an affair with Clinton, the most powerful man in the world and 27 years her senior. In her Vanity Fair essay, she describes a horrific scenario for anyone to deal with, let alone someone in their early 20s at their first job: threats from Starr that she could face more than 20 years in prison, her mother testifying against her in court, 125 Washington Post articles about her in a 10-day span. Lewinsky writes:
And she makes an important point: Whereas today the women of the #MeToo movement have rallied together to lift each other up and support one another, 20 years ago, Lewinsky was largely on her own.
She describes an exchange with a woman leading the #MeToo movement, who she doesn’t name. “’I’m sorry you were so alone.’ Those seven words undid me,” Lewinsky writes, continuing, “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.”
It is an indictment of a culture we would like to think has evolved — but that still has a long way to go.
The #MeToo movement has changed how Lewinsky thinks about what happened
Lewinsky admits that the #MeToo movement has changed how she thought about her own experience and what it means to consent. Four years ago in another Vanity Fair essay, Lewinsky emphasized that her relationship with Clinton was consensual, and that the abuse came in the aftermath, when she was made a “scapegoat in order to protect [Clinton’s] powerful position.”
Now, at 44, she writes, she views it differently. “I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege,” Lewinsky writes. She continues:
It’s been 20 years since Lewinsky’s public ordeal began, and she still isn’t sure how to look at it — and, frankly, neither are we. The #MeToo movement has also brought about questions about the public forgiveness of Clinton, specifically by liberals, and whether he should have resigned.
Lewinsky writes that she believes had what happened in 1998, things would be different in the #MeToo context. But shattering entrenched cultural expectations and norms is an ongoing process.
“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,” she writes. “What it means to confront a long-held belief (one clung to like a life raft in the middle of the ocean) is to challenge your own perceptions and allow the pentimento painting that is hidden beneath the surface to emerge and be seen in the light of a new day.”