President Bill Clinton's affair with 24-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky became a scandal of international proportions in 1998 when it led to Clinton's impeachment. Clinton's political career was far from destroyed by the highy publicized incident, but Lewinsky's life has been unimaginably changed. Treated as a national joke (and then later reclaimed as a kind of camp icon), the events that led to Lewinsky's disgracing would have been treated quite differently now: With an evolving discourse on sexual violence and how it relates to structural power imbalances, Lewinsky may have been treated as a victim and not a seducer if the news had broken today. Now, in a Vanity Fair article written by Lewinsky herself, Monica reflects on the social changes that have occurred since her name had dominated headlines.
The article begins with Lewinsky meeting Ken Starr, the prosecutor she describes as "the man who had turned my ... life into a living hell," in his dogged pursuit of Clinton's perjury.
“Though I wish I had made different choices back then,” Lewinsky tells him in an emotional and surreal reconciliation. “I wish that you and your office had made different choices, too.”
Twenty years after Clinton's impeachment, Lewinsky says she's been dealing with PTSD from the publicizing of her personal life.
"I’ve also come to understand how my trauma has been, in a way, a microcosm of a larger, national one," writes Lewinsky, reflecting on the social, political, and even technological upheavals that have occurred since the scandal, along with the seismic shifts in the public's consumption and understanding of media. "We are now at a stage where we can untangle the complexities and context (maybe even with a little compassion), which might help lead to an eventual healing—and a systemic transformation."
Lewinsky also explains that she's found herself thinking about her trauma in the context of the #MeToo movement: "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 ... I am in awe of the sheer courage of the women who have stood up and begun to confront entrenched beliefs and institutions."
Understandably, not all women have aligned Monica's ordeal with a reinvigorated rhetoric about sexual assault and social change, with some women even hoping to distance her from their stories. This is partially due to Lewinsky having previously written that her sexual encounters with Clinton were completely consensual, essentially distancing her from contemporary discussions around sexual assault. Now, seeing the increasingly nuanced conversations on the topic, she wonders about the validity of that consent: "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. (Full stop.)"
"I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances—and the ability to abuse them—do exist even when the sex has been consensual.) But it’s also complicated. Very, very complicated." she continues.
"But as for me, my history, and how I fit in personally?" Lewinsky ponders. "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."
Read Lewinsky's full essay at Vanity Fair.
[Photos: Getty Images]