Two decades before Harvey Weinstein — before the barrage of sexual misconduct allegations against Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer and Kevin Spacey and Al Franken and Steve Wynn; before countless women came forward with their stories of harassment and abuse, forming a movement that forced raw conversations about sex and power — Monica Lewinsky was coming to her own conclusions about what she did and endured.
Conclusions that have unraveled all these years later, in the wake of #MeToo.
In a pointed Vanity Fair essay, Lewinsky recalls the scandal surrounding her sexual relationship with then-President Bill Clinton, prompting his impeachment trial. He was later acquitted.
Lewinsky writes about how she had come to view her affair with Clinton as “a consensual relationship” — and how all the women (and men) now speaking out about sexual misconduct have given her a “new lens” through which to see her own story.
“Given my PTSD and my understanding of trauma, it’s very likely that my thinking would not necessarily be changing at this time had it not been for the #MeToo movement — not only because of the new lens it has provided but also because of how it has offered new avenues toward the safety that comes from solidarity,” she writes.
She explains how less than four years earlier, she had written in Vanity Fair that any “abuse” she endured from her relationship with the president “came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.”
“I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent,” Lewinsky says in her new essay. “Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)
“Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern.”
Over the past year, numerous celebrities and models, journalists, interns, aides and others have unleashed a stream of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations against people in positions of power.
There were so many of them that Time magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as 2017 Person of the Year, recognizing the women and men who came forward with their stories and helped force a nationwide reckoning.
The magazine called them “the voices that launched a movement.”
“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 now writes. “And as a culture, we still haven’t properly examined it. Reframed 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 might help lead to an eventual healing — and a systemic transformation.”
Lewinsky describes how her life was changed by what Clinton called an “inappropriate relationship,” when she was in her early 20s and he was more than twice her age, serving as the 42nd president of the United States.
When their relationship became public in early 1998, Lewinsky’s life was turned upside down. And, she says now, she has felt isolated ever since.
“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,” she says.
“Isolation is such a powerful tool to the subjugator. And yet I don’t believe I would have felt so isolated had it all happened today.”
Amid mounting allegations of sexual harassment and assault, millions of men and women have taken to social media to share heart-wrenching stories of abuse — many of them for the first time — with the hashtag #MeToo.
Their accounts not only exposed the magnitude of the problem, but also the burden these survivors bear in speaking out.
“There are many more women and men whose voices and stories need to be heard before mine,” Lewinsky writes in her essay, adding: “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,” she adds, “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? 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.”
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. 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 reevaluation; 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.
Lewinsky credits those who have spoken out.
“They are speaking volumes against the pernicious conspiracies of silence that have long protected powerful men when it comes to sexual assault, sexual harassment, and abuse of power.”