Monica Lewinsky's belated #MeToo moment

It certainly took a long time but Monica Lewinsky is now finally admitting that she wasn’t just a young woman in love with an older man. She was also someone on the wrong end of the world’s most striking imbalance of power. In a piece for Vanity Fair, Lewinsky writes that she’s just starting to admit to herself that there may have been something very wrong with what happened:

For two dec­ades, I have been working on myself, my trauma, and my healing. And, naturally, I have grappled with the rest of the world’s interpretations and Bill Clinton’s re-interpretations of what happened. But in truth, I have done this at arm’s length. There have been so many barriers to this place of self-reckoning.

The reason this is difficult is that I’ve lived for such a long time in the House of Gaslight, clinging to my experiences as they unfolded in my 20s and railing against the untruths that painted me as an unstable stalker and Servicer in Chief. An inability to deviate from the internal script of what I actually experienced left little room for re-evaluation; I cleaved to what I “knew.” So often have I struggled with my own sense of agency versus victimhood. (In 1998, we were living in times in which women’s sexuality was a marker of their agency—“owning desire.” And yet, I felt that if I saw myself as in any way a victim, it would open the door to choruses of: “See, you did merely service him.”)

What it means to confront a long-held belief (one clung to like a life raft in the middle of the ocean) is to challenge your own perceptions and allow the pentimento painting that is hidden beneath the surface to emerge and be seen in the light of a new day.

It’s a thoughtful piece but what Lewinsky seems to be saying is that she didn’t want to be seen as a victim because that also made her out as, to put it bluntly, Bill Clinton’s plaything. That wasn’t something she wanted to believe at the time (and still doesn’t). But the advent of the #MeToo movement has her re-thinking what she experienced and looking at it from the outside for the first time.

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. Just four years ago, in an essay for this magazine, I wrote the following: “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.” 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.)

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. 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.)

And that’s as far as it goes. Lewinsky still doesn’t want to blame Bill Clinton for something she, as a naive adult, participated in willingly. But you do get the sense that the #MeToo moment may have opened her eyes to another perspective on what happened.

Harvey Weinstein took advantage of dozens and perhaps hundreds of women. In some cases what he is accused of is violent rape or sexual assault. But in many cases, he was leveraging his position of power to manipulate young women with promises both explicit and implied. Sometimes it was ‘You’ll never work in this town again’ and sometimes it was ‘I have a perfect part for you.’ Very often, Weinstein seems to have implied that the woman was going to benefit from his position, so long as she gave him what he wanted. And don’t forget, there were many women who went along with this. Weinstein’s victims weren’t all raped against their will. Some of them, young and naive, took the deal that was offered, hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be a lie.

Hopefully, the comparison is self-evident. Monica Lewinsky doesn’t take it this far, but I think it’s not hard to see a similar dynamic in her relationship with Bill Clinton. Whether he made it explicit or not, the fact is that Clinton was offering her special, private access to his personal world, i.e. the life of the most powerful person on the planet. Maybe she didn’t think of it in those terms exactly at the time, but she was being singled out as special by someone important. That’s a bargain many 22-year-olds might find hard to resist. Bill Clinton didn’t care about her inevitable disappointment. And like Harvey Weinstein, he didn’t hesitate to lie about what happened to preserve his position and power.

It’s good that Monica Lewinsky is starting to see what a lot of other people saw in this two decades ago. I hope she can continue to confront it. Just because she was a willing participant doesn’t mean she wasn’t being manipulated by someone with more power and experience.