There’s a line between needing to hear women’s painful stories and forcing women to relive them, and on Monday evening the line got blurry with Monica Lewinsky.
On stage at an event in Jerusalem, ostensibly there to talk about the anti-bullying advocacy she’s made a career of, Lewinsky was asked by Israeli news anchor Yonit Levi whether she still expected a personal apology from Bill Clinton.
In response, Lewinsky offered her own apology — “I’m so sorry, I’m not going to be able to do this,” she said — and walked off the stage.
Later on Twitter she explained that she and Levi had previously agreed the question would be off limits. “When she asked me on stage, with blatant disregard for our agreement, it was clear to me I had been misled.” (A spokesman for Levi’s Channel 2 News Co. insisted that the question “certainly did not go beyond Ms. Lewinsky’s requests and did not cross the line.”)
What do we still want with Monica Lewinsky? Two decades after her grand jury testimony, the former White House intern is now a middle-aged woman trapped in a time capsule, doomed to account and re-account for Bill Clinton’s behavior. Are we looking to her as a case study — an early survivor of what we’d now consider workplace harassment — because we think her hindsight perspective is useful? Or is it something more prurient?
With Lewinsky, it’s always been prurient. A new book about gender equality in the Clinton era, “90s Bitch,” dedicates a whole chapter to the way our culture presented her as a floozy. The media tossed around words such as “saucy” and “ditsy”; the New York Post nicknamed her the “Portly Pepperpot.” (I can tell you that 1998 was not a fun year to be a young woman named Monica; I was a high school student 800 miles away from Washington, and I still had new acquaintances ask me about my sexual talents.)
There’s a limp argument, I guess, to be made that Lewinsky is famous only because of the Clinton scandal. Plenty of folks responded to her tweet on Monday by pointing this out: Could she have been a purse designer, a diet company spokeswoman and, now, an anti-bullying advocate were it not for Bill Clinton? Are we not owed her thoughts on him, quid pro quo?
But why is anyone so sure that Bill Clinton’s infidelity would have been her only route to fame?
How do we know that Jenny Craig represented a lucky apex of Monica Lewinksy’s career rather than the punishing ceiling imposed on a young woman of talent who could have been a power player and instead became a punchline? Are we saying that because she was famous once — under circumstances no sentient human would choose — her choices now are to talk about those circumstances on command for the rest of her life, or to disappear?
It was ironic that the Jerusalem event happened just a week after Louis C.K. stepped on stage at a comedy club open-mic night, having unilaterally decided it was time for his comeback. And also just a week after Matt Lauer reportedly told fans that he’d “be back on TV.” Some observers argued that these men need to be able to make a living. (Are prominent and highly paid livelihoods the only ones available to them?)
Others wondered why we should be so worried about the careers of these men. What about the careers of their victims?
On that last question, we already have some answers. Here are a few experiments regarding what happens to the careers of harassment victims: Google award-winning actresses Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino and Rose McGowan, and try to find any recent news story in which they’re mentioned for their acting work and not as a “Harvey Weinstein accuser.”
Google Rebecca Corry, whom Louis C.K. admitted he masturbated in front of, and learn that people these days approach her to ask not about her career as a comedy writer but whether C.K. should get a comeback.
Try to think of a single thing you know about Andrea Constand, other than that she was assaulted by Bill Cosby.
If you are Monica Lewinsky, you’ve been invited to parties and then disinvited after a certain ex-president also RSVP’d. You’ve had your name reemerge at the oddest of times — like when documents came to light revealing that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had worked for Ken Starr and urged the special prosecutor to ask Clinton the most graphic questions possible. “If Monica Lewinsky says that you ejaculated in her mouth on two occasions in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?” Kavanaugh suggested as a question.
If you’re Monica Lewinsky, you already know the first line of your obituary, and you know nothing you do for the rest of your life will change that.
All of these questions about when men accused of harassment get to come back. Monica Lewinsky never got a chance to leave.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.