The new FX miniseries “Impeachment: American Crime Story” undermines that long-lost narrative. Clinton’s charm is depicted as both powerful and poisonous, while Lewinsky is first turned on and ultimately tortured by her subordination. As such, the miniseries is a perfect spur to ask what might have happened in subsequent decades if the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship had prompted a smarter, more nuanced set of conversations about sex and power.
It’s jarring to reread the nastygrams lobbed at Lewinsky at the time by powerful women. But it’s even stranger to revisit depictions of her affair with Clinton as a kind of romp.
The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar positioned Lewinsky as the person with real power in her relationship with the aging Clinton, while MacFarquhar’s colleague Rebecca Mead praised “Lewinsky’s aggressive assertion of her freedom to flirt.” In a bizarre New York Observer roundtable, Katie Roiphe suggested that, after the “sexual policing” of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, “Now, this virile President is suddenly fulfilling this forbidden fantasy of this old-fashioned, taboo aggressive male. I think women are finding that appealing.” Salon ran a feature on an “eerily prescient” 1994 book about the dreams Americans had about Clinton, many of them sexual.
As this debate raged, Marjorie Williams argued in the May 1998 issue of Vanity Fair that this was all a stance of convenience: “Feminists have an important stake in seeing Lewinsky as a competent young sexual adventuress: a portrait in avid consent. If there was consent, there was no victim; no victim, no problem.” (Lewinsky doesn’t see herself as a victim of the relationship with Clinton, but by his later abuses of power.)
Yet in retrospect, there was something more going on in sexual culture and feminist thinking than an impulse to protect Clinton. The rush to grant Lewinsky agency, even to the point of oversimplification, was a reaction to decades of paternalism that denied women the right to sexual desire. Taken to its logical conclusion, this sort of thinking helped produce a culture that feminist writer Ariel Levy described in “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” — one in which women participated in their own objectification in the name of liberation.
It’s not a straight line from portraying Lewinsky as a sex kitten to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in prime time and celebrity sex tapes as business opportunities. But she was surely an early example of the limits of emphasizing personal choice above all.
So, what might feminists have said about Lewinsky instead?
I can think of a few things. Maybe that consent is important, but that not everything we consent to is good for us. And that consent can’t prevent someone from abusing the power we’ve given them over us.
Also, maybe that even if it was okay for Lewinsky to tell the president she had a crush on him, that it was still abusive for Clinton to pursue an underling. Maybe, too, that a young woman deserves equitable pleasure and consideration in a relationship. And maybe that no number of big jobs to prominent women outweighs the rotten treatment of women without influence or connections.
If that balance had been struck in 1998, think how much saner some of our subsequent debates might have been — and what harm might have been prevented.
Perhaps the #MeToo movement might have been kick-started earlier if Clinton’s treatment of Lewinsky had been condemned by consensus rather than turned into a tool of partisan warfare. Think of the benefits if just Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein discovered they couldn’t buy tolerance of their predation with job offers and charm.
A generation of boys and girls would have benefited from more sophisticated conversations about consent and what kind of treatment they deserved in their relationships.
And an honest assessment of what leverage Lewinsky truly had in her relationship with the president of the United States could have laid better groundwork for an era in which sites like OnlyFans lowered the barrier to entry for aspiring sexual capitalists. It doesn’t infringe on anyone’s agency to acknowledge that treating youth, beauty and sexual availability as commodities often works out very differently for women than it does for men.
It’s taken decades for Americans to see Monica Lewinsky clearly. That delay cost her terribly. But it cost the rest of us, too.