For many people, Monica Lewinsky was the villain of the Clinton presidential scandal. Far more lascivious than the average workplace affair or the typical storyline of the person who falls in love with her boss, Lewinsky’s escapades with Clinton in the Oval Office shamed and outraged a nation.
Lewinsky received anger and scrutiny for being a homewrecker. For damaging the country. For a lack of modesty and morals that not only intruded on the sanctity of a single marriage but on the character of an entire nation. Her eager actions with the president of the United States gave credence to every wife who has ever side-eyed an attractive young secretary or intern.
For years, then, Lewinsky alternated between avoiding the spotlight and trying to explain her actions, and both of these tactics have largely failed to endear her to Americans. Lewinsky’s new Vanity Fair essay examines her relationship with Clinton in light of #MeToo, and asks long-overdue questions about consent and power disparities in sexual relationships.
Monica Lewinsky’s Path to Infamy
In 1995, Lewinsky was 21 years old and a recent college graduate. She started an unpaid intern position in the White House chief of staff’s office. In November of that year, a government furlough moved the interns to the West Wing to take over the jobs of normal staffers, since interns could continue working without pay. This brought Lewinsky into the path of the president, and their sexual relationship started on November 15. She moved into a paid position later than month, and the sexual relationship continued until 1997.
Everything started to come to light when Lewinsky told a coworker at the Pentagon, Linda Tripp, about the relationship, and Tripp secretly recorded some of the conversations. Tripp’s connections passed knowledge of these tapes to the lawyers representing another woman, Paula Jones, who had accused Clinton of sexual misconduct when he was Arkansas governor.
Jones’s lawyers subpoenaed Lewinsky. She initially denied any sexual contact with Clinton. Tripp recorded her again, this time using a microphone with the help of Kenneth Starr, and Lewinsky was told that if she denied the relationship under oath she could be charged with perjury.
Clinton initially denied his relationship with Lewinsky, and was later impeached by the House of Representatives. Clinton’s exact words about this famously were: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The Senate acquitted him. Clinton finished his presidency, and later had his law license suspended for five years after admitting that his conduct interfered with the administration of justice.
Monica Lewinsky’s New Place In a #MeToo World
Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair article recounts her story much more sympathetically than past retellings. She opens with a recent encounter with Starr in a restaurant, her first face-to-face meeting with him. She says Starr kept touching her arm and elbow in a way that made her uncomfortable. Lewinsky introduced him to her family, including her mother, who also had to divulge private information her daughter had confided in her or face prosecution.
Lewinsky’s handling of this is poignant: “I finally gathered my wits about me—after an internal command of Get it together. ‘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.’”
Lewinsky was diagnosed with PTSD after the details of her affair became public, and she says she is trying to adjust to her trauma in light of current society: “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. 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.”
All of this discussion is happening right now, in this very specific way, because of #MeToo. The Weinsteins of the world have finally had their cover ripped off, and people are talking about both specific situations and general issues around consent and what sorts of dating and workplace relationships are actually beneficial and mutually acceptable. So it’s no surprise, really, that Lewinsky is considering her place in this world and discussion.
Is a Consensual Relationship Really Part of #MeToo?
Her relationship was anything but the norm, and while the difference between intern and president is perhaps more extreme than between many bosses and underlings, it’s still part of the evolving awareness around workplace romantic interplay. Lewinsky notes: “There are many more women and men whose voices and stories need to be heard before mine. (There are even some people who feel my White House experiences don’t have a place in this movement, as what transpired between Bill Clinton and myself was not sexual assault, although we now recognize that it constituted a gross abuse of power.) 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?”
Her unease with her place in this movement is not without merit. By most accounts, Lewinsky pursued Clinton. In the not-so-distant past of 2014, when musing about this very subject, Lewinsky earlier wrote for Vanity Fair: “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.”
Clinton was in a position of power over Lewinsky, both as a boss and as an older and more experienced person. She was not a passive responder, though, and her earlier accounts of their relationship note that she repetitively and assertively flirted with Clinton, including flashing her thong at him in the office.
Starr’s report to the House includes: “At one point during the conversation, the President tugged on the pink intern pass hanging from her neck and said that it might be a problem. Ms. Lewinsky thought that he was talking about access — interns were not supposed to be in the West Wing without an escort — and, in addition, that he might have discerned some ‘impropriety’ in a sexual relationship with a White House intern.”
Lewinsky positioned herself to bump into the president frequently, and eventually the White House chief of staff agreed to have her transferred to the Pentagon because of the amount of time she and the president were spending together.
These Relationships Are a Bad Idea, Even if Consensual
At the time of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, he was, and still is, a married man. The White House staffers who attempted to break them up knew the truth: an affair was bad for both them and the country.
While the Clintons didn’t divorce, infidelity often does end in divorce, and divorce is bad for families and bad for kids. A child of divorce recently explored this reality: “I have learned that no-fault divorce is one of the biggest lies our culture tries to get people to believe. In truth, ‘no-fault divorce is destroying women, children, and men. More precisely, divorce destroys marriage, and the destruction of marriage harms every party involved. The legality of no-fault divorce just makes it infinitely easier to hurt people. There are no two ways about it. No one comes out of a divorce a happier and more whole person.’”
Encouraging people to be together who should not only encourages heartache, all around. Lewinsky and Clinton were never going to ride off into the sunset, fleeing politics and the power in DC. Instead, Lewinsky’s life has been overshadowed by choices she made in her early 20s, and Clinton’s presidency, and the country’s trust in the integrity of its presidents, was forever altered.
The nonsensical advice that so many modern outlets give about divorce and affairs is devoid of both common sense and reality, and ignore that a stable home can avoid the heartache and drama Clinton and Lewinsky’s whole families faced. None of us are islands in this life, and the decisions an individual makes ripple out to shake the lives of everyone around him.
This Doesn’t Mean All Office Romance Is Bad
While people who are married to others shouldn’t look for dating partners in the workplace, and bosses need to be really, really cautious about dating subordinates, it’s impractical and disingenuous to say that workplace relationships are never appropriate. Many marriages and successful relationships start in the office, and it’s a natural meeting place.
D.C. McAllister notes what men and women actually need to navigate the murky waters of relationships: “Essential to the relationship between men and women is the sexual dynamic. For trust to flourish, this reality can’t denied, and it must be handled with respect, care, and honesty. It can’t be shut down.”
Trust can’t form when a relationship is built on lies, like the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. The “problematic consent” that Lewinsky looks back at 20 years later would have never been an issue if Clinton had remembered that at home he had a wife and a child. The real relationship that should have been central in all of this was Clinton’s actual marriage, and every movement he made from the moment he decided to ignore his family was wrong.
This wrong hurt our country, it hurt Lewinsky, and it hurt him, as well. They never should have engaged in a sexual relationship. Its fallout has continued, and will continue, to affect American civil life and politics for years to come.