Sex, power and humiliation: eight lessons women learned from Monica Lewinsky’s shaming

In November 1995, a 22-year-old White House intern called Monica Lewinsky had the first of nine sexual encounters with Bill Clinton, the 49-year‑old US president. As an official investigation would later reveal, these included fellatio, but not penetrative sex. The relationship, such as it was, continued until March 1997. It was a high-risk enterprise, occurring at the president’s official residence and at a time when Clinton was accused of sexually harassing a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones. But perhaps it didn’t seem that high-risk to either of them: Clinton had got away with much longer affairs before – and Lewinsky didn’t see Linda Tripp coming.

Tripp, a former White House official then working at the Pentagon, already had a dim view of the Clinton administration. When Lewinsky, who had transferred from the White House to the Pentagon in April 1996, began confiding in her colleague in late 1997, Tripp recorded their conversations and persuaded Lewinsky to keep safe a dress with Clinton’s semen on it. Tripp then passed the tapes and intel to Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who was investigating the Clintons over historical property investments in Arkansas, the president’s home state.

The fallout almost cost Clinton the presidency. He denied any sexual activity with Lewinsky. This apparent perjury later gave Starr grounds to argue for his impeachment. It was incredibly arresting at the time, partly because of the lurid details – the stains on Lewinsky’s dress, the cigar that reportedly featured in a sex game – and partly because it was such a baffling snapshot of US politics. If impeachment was such a huge deal – the first time in more than a century it had happened to a president – how did Clinton remain in post afterwards, apparently untouched by it?

Later, in the 00s, people started to consider the political dimension more searchingly. What implications did it have for the policy environment? Could Clinton have got more done without it? To what degree were Starr’s tactics in pressing the impeachment part of a wider play to kill the administration by a thousand insinuations?

Now, though – thanks in part to the podcast Slow Burn, which in 2018 built an intricate, magisterial portrait of the scandal – the blaring questions mostly boil down to: is that really how we used to think? Did we genuinely find it that easy to blame a woman, any woman, for anything? Were we really so credulous in the face of powerful men that their word was untouchable by anything short of DNA evidence?

As the US TV channel FX revisits the scandal in a 10-part drama, Impeachment: American Crime Story, soon to be shown on BBC Two, here are eight lessons we can draw from the ugly mess.

‘Slut-shaming’ was big in the 90s – and didn’t pretend to be anything else

Monica Lewinsky in February 1999
Monica Lewinsky in February 1999. Photograph: Greg Gibson/AP

Lewinsky’s affair with Clinton was revealed by the Drudge Report, a US news-aggregation website, on 17 January 1998, the day after the FBI had detained Lewinsky in a sting operation known as Prom Night. Even before – long before – any truth in the affair had been established, Lewinsky became a hate figure. Katie Couric, a mainstream news anchor, described her as a “predatory girl who had set her sights on the president”. This interpretation – that the intern was problematically promiscuous and “basically blackmail[ing] the president of the United States”, in the words of the talkshow host Bill Maher – was not uncommon, from Democrats as much as Republicans. Clearly, she was power-mad, her grandiosity and narcissism conveyed by the fact that, for her, only the president would do.

This was a well-worn way to discredit a woman who might reveal the sexual improprieties of a man in public office. The smear even had a name: “A little bit slutty, a little bit nutty”, as coined by the team who used it against Anita Hill in 1991, when she accused the would-be supreme court justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

There was a relentlessness to the attacks on Lewinsky, though, which partly resulted from the way the picture refused to cohere: was she a strategic, self-interested genius or a delusional, naive idiot? Was she a slut or a fantasist? If she was a spoilt brat who got everything she wanted, how had she ended up with nothing?

Most of this troubling ambiguity, of course, came from the fact that Clinton wasn’t telling the truth. Yet, even after that was established, the raw hatred of Lewinsky didn’t dissipate. One of the most extraordinary articles appeared in Salon magazine at the end of 1998; in it, a writer concluded that Lewinsky’s mother, Marcia Lewis, was “also strangely drawn to powerful men with oversized libidos” (he got this from Lewis’s “moist-palmed” book about the Three Tenors, written two years earlier). Not to get bogged down in his logic, it was a distillation of pure disgust: this young woman is sexual; her mother is also sexual. How perfectly vile. Poor powerfully libidoed men.

The understanding of power dynamics was extremely underdeveloped

Clinton and Lewinsky on the south lawn of the White House in November 1996
Clinton and Lewinsky on the south lawn of the White House in November 1996. Photograph: AP

It had hardly gone unnoticed, then, that Clinton was powerful, maybe peerlessly so, while Lewinsky was a nothing, a nobody, a fleck. Yet the difference between their positions, and what exploitation could possibly thrive in that chasm, went unexamined. In a US Observer article entitled New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez, 10 prominent women – mainly writers, a couple of comedians, a restaurateur, a fashion designer – discussed the saga in detail, pondering questions such as: is a blowjob infidelity? Did he really do this? (It was February 1998 and had not been confirmed – they agreed that he definitely did.) Did it make them think any less of him? (No.) Would they do the president? (Mostly yes.) They were feminists, some of them famous ones – Erica Jong, Nancy Friday, Patricia Marx – although, being sex-positive, they considered themselves outliers (they talked about “mainstream feminism” as something distinct).

At one point, the author and journalist Katie Roiphe asked: “Why did the public opinion overwhelmingly support Anita Hill, whereas Monica Lewinsky nobody has any sympathy for?” Francine Prose, a distinguished woman of letters, replied: “I wanted Clarence Thomas out of there … Whereas I don’t want Clinton out of there. So you know, bless little Monica …”

It makes me want to scream at the past: “Guys, just because sex is great and so are the Democrats, it doesn’t give you a pass on questions of power and coercion. Where does that end? What if he wants a virgin sacrifice?”

Where there was censure of the president, it was mainly over lying: to the public (generally disapproved of); to his wife (mainly a conservative complaint); and to members of his cabinet who learned they had inadvertently lied for him (Madeleine Albright). It was terribly rare even to voice concern at how young Lewinksy was (Donna Shalala, the health secretary, was an exception), let alone to ask what “consent” meant in this context. This was all the more astonishing after the world had heard Clinton’s defence.

Clinton’s defence was jaw-dropping

His impeachment at the end of 1998 boiled down to two counts: lying under oath and obstruction of justice. The oath was in his deposition earlier that year in the sexual harassment case that Jones had brought against him. That was where he denied having a “sexual relationship”, “sexual affair” or “sexual relations” with Lewinsky.

Asked to account for this, 11 months later, by Starr, a man in possession of presidential semen on Lewinsky’s blue dress, Clinton came back to the first court’s definition of sex: touching a list of body parts, either directly or through clothes, “with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of that person”. He didn’t think receiving oral sex counted, he said. And why should it? He was prepared to swear under oath, as many times as it took, that he had made no attempt to arouse her sexual desire or gratify it. Maybe this made him a medium-good lawyer, but – good God – what kind of a person?

If you’re a woman caught in the Madonna-whore dichotomy, try to be neither (good luck with that)

Hillary Clinton watches on as her husband thanks the Democratic House members who voted against impeachment in December 1998
Hillary Clinton watches on as her husband thanks the Democratic House members who voted against impeachment in December 1998. Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

Hillary Clinton’s approval rating hit an all-time high at the start of the impeachment process, when she was perceived to be performing the ultimate duty of a wife: loyalty. Between 1992 and the end of her husband’s presidency, her popularity inversely tracked her political activity. Trying to reform healthcare, she was distrusted; talking about biscuits, she was better loved. Even decades later, her public standing would deteriorate whenever she tried to build an identity separate to that of “wife”. In a sense, she is trapped in the aspic of the last century’s spousal model, while the world has moved on. If anything, the attacks on her are more severe now than they were in the 90s.

This seems to me to be idiosyncratic to the US. In the mid‑00s, I was talking to my cousin, who had moved to New York 20 years before, about the old saying that you know you are a citizen when you start to get angry at a country’s politicians. “I will never understand how much they hate Hillary Clinton,” she said.

Third-wave feminism had a blind spot, as did second-wave

A White House reporter watches Monica Lewinsky’s depositon during Clinton’s impeachment hearing in February 1999
A White House reporter watches Monica Lewinsky’s depositon during Clinton’s impeachment hearing in February 1999. Photograph: Ron Edmonds/AP

There was one feminist intervention that made sense to me at the time. Amelia Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner wrote: “We don’t need to defend Lewinsky’s decisions or justify her love to support her rights in the name of the rights of all young women. We want the right to be sexually active without the presumption that we were used or duped. We want the right to determine our own choices based on our own morality.”

This reignited a classic debate between the libertine, sex-positive third wave and the rule-bound, sex-as-victimisation second wave. It was seen as a replay of the “porn wars” of the 80s, but it was nothing like the porn wars.

The Lewinsky affair was like a symphony of individual and institutional misogyny, with variations, repetitions and crescendoes on that theme. First Clinton, never mind objectifying her, treated her like a non-person, a sex doll. Then the FBI sting operation, which Starr described years later in non‑consensual, sadistic terms (“Fresh from the gym … Monica screamed, she cried, she pouted,” he wrote, of a young woman he had asked his team to threaten with 27 years in prison). Then a much broader cultural attack in which she became the landing point for a seething social anxiety that was basically vagina dentata – what if a hot woman seduces you and then bites off your penis?

The idea that she had agency in all this is laughable, but the second‑wave idea that no young woman can consent to anything is also laughable. A more sophisticated conversation could have taken place, had the two sides not fallen so readily into established trammels.

The public hates being asked to adjudicate on sexual morality (if it’s a man’s)

The more allegations came out about Clinton, the more his polling improved – even in the wild west of the newly minted internet, which gave out details that mainstream media outlets prior to this would never have touched; even with Starr’s epic report. Public shaming relies on a public, yet the public seemed to identify with the wrongdoer. This is interesting to consider in the light of the Teflon reputations of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. I always thought they had a pass on infidelity and misogynistic language because of the nature of their support base; an authoritarian politician can get away with anything, so long as it can be filed under “red-blooded man”. But it might be more accurate to say any man can get away with anything that can be filed under “man”.

The era was a fat-shaming bonanza

The scrutiny of Lewinsky and Tripp’s bodies was so intense that it spiralled off into its own universe. Saturday Night Live had repeated skits in which John Goodman would make himself look fatter than he was already in order to impersonate Tripp, the joke being … who knows what the joke was.

Lewinsky was lambasted for being fat (sample joke from Jay Leno: “[She’s] considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah, she didn’t want to give up her sex life”), then derided for worrying about whether she was fat (David Letterman’s suggestion for the first line of her memoir: “Does this font make me look fat?”).

In retrospect, the joke was obvious: if a woman can’t conform to a size and shape in order to exist in public life, she doesn’t belong in public life.

The world has moved on – but not as much as it needs to

Lewinsky, escorted by members of her team, in Washington in February 1999
Lewinsky, escorted by members of her team, in Washington in February 1999. Photograph: Kamenko Pajic/AP

It is hard to say how Lewinsky’s treatment would have been different had the story broken yesterday. Certainly, the castigation from the mainstream media would have been more muted, although there is now a vivid misogynistic manosphere online that could pick up the slack.

It remains a high-stakes endeavour to accuse a powerful man of sexual misconduct in public life. It still seems to be a numbers game. One woman’s word alone is rarely believed (Brett Kavanaugh was unscathed); 50 might do it (it took 87 to bring down Harvey Weinstein); 150 is ideal (the number of women and girls who accused Larry Nassar, the US gymnasts’ doctor).

Four women publicly accused Clinton of sexual assault or misconduct, one of them in a rape allegation. Starr, that mighty sword of conservative justice, was later involved in stitching up Jeffrey Epstein’s sweetheart deal for his first conviction for a sex offence involving a minor. A former aide has recalled Clinton visiting Epstein’s “paedophile island” and the two men being friends. The impunity of these compromising actions and associations is hard to imagine now. But I still wouldn’t fancy being a woman at the centre of one of these storms.


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