For nearly 20 years, Monica Lewinsky said she accepted the idea that she was an equal, willing partner in her Oval Office affair with President Bill Clinton and that any “abuse” came in the political storm that followed when she was made “a scapegoat” to protect him and his presidency.
But she says that her perspective has changed in recent months, as she writes in a new essay in Vanity Fair.
That’s because of the #MeToo movement, which she and others point out has exposed the sometimes complicated ways in which powerful men are able to sexually prey on those less powerful, and rely on their positions to protect them and to silence their victims.
“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,” Lewinsky writes in her essay published online Sunday. “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.” She added that power imbalances and the ability to abuse them “do exist even when the sex has been consensual.”
Lewinsky’s essay comes as the 20th anniversary approaches of when details of her sexual relationship with Clinton, now 71, were revealed in the Starr Report. The 445-page document was the result of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of the Clinton White House. Lewinsky’s affair with the 42nd president took place between 1995 and 1997 when she was 22, and he was in his late 40s.
The Starr Report led to Clinton’s impeachment trial and eventual acquittal. It also created an epic scandal that saturated American media and culture. With details of her intimate sexual activities exposed, Lewinsky has said in this piece and in a 2012 Vanity Fair essay that she was labeled an “unstable stalker,” the “Servicer in Chief,” and the “queen” of a certain kind of sex act.
She described in both those essays how the humiliation forced her into an exile of sorts, in which she left the country and struggled to find work. She added that she was more recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by the ordeal of having been publicly outed and ostracized.
Most of all, she writes in her most recent piece that she felt she was totally alone, “abandoned most of all by the key figure in the crisis, who actually knew me well and intimately.”
But she notes that things have dramatically shifted in recent months. That’s because of news reports revealing how Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men allegedly committed decades of sexual harassment or assault and used the machinery of their power to silence and ostracize victims. Those revelations sparked the #MeToo movement and a national reckoning about sexual harassment and gender inequality.
Lewinsky writes how she had recently received a private note from one of the women leading the #MeToo movement, which had the message: “I’m so sorry you were so alone.”
Lewinsky added that the mass of women in a variety of industries speaking out against sexual harassment has enabled her to view what happened between her and Clinton in a new and perhaps more enlightened way. While she still says that her sexual relationship with Clinton wasn’t sexual assault, she writes, “We now recognize that it constituted a gross abuse of power.”
Lewinsky acknowledged that the issue of consent can still be complicated, but she questions how she could have truly given consent in an affair with the President of the United States. Yes, she writes that she was dazzled by him and craved an “intimacy,” but she said she was was 22 with “a limited understanding” of the consequences.
She goes on to ask what consent means in her case, “given the power dynamics” inherent in the situation. She writes, “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.”
But because of the #MeToo movement, Lewinsky writes, “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.”