When the Monica Lewinsky Scandal first came to light, I’d just turned ten. Aside from the traditional “birds and the bees” overview and Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” my health education was relatively limited. (It’d be nearly two years before I fully grasped what those “relations” entailed.)
Since 1998, however, Ms. Lewinsky’s name has yet to escape the nation’s collective consciousness. As she wrote in her recent essay for Vanity Fair, “there has been at least one significant reference to that unfortunate spell in our history every day for the past 20 years.” Beyond the media’s fascination, Ms. Lewinsky’s image has also become ingrained in popular culture. One cannot watch 2008’s “Made of Honor” without being bombarded by countless beret-clad doppelgängers, after all, and the final season of “The Nanny” remains chock full of timely jabs that have retained their wit and relevance decades later.
But after 20 years of ridicule—in the midst of the #MeToo moment, no less—we must ask ourselves one seemingly simple question: Should Ms. Lewinsky still “own” the scandal?
Although Ms. Lewinsky might be the most notable, she was by no means former president Bill Clinton’s only alleged extramarital affair. Yet, because she was 27 years his junior at the time of the given sexual encounters, she was the most salacious, and therefore, the prime target during the subsequent inquiries into Mr. Clinton’s lies and infidelities. Thus, we watched as Ms. Lewinsky was dragged through the proverbial mud, her life upended indefinitely in an effort to uncover the sordid truth about the most powerful man in America.
In an earlier essay for Vanity Fair, Ms. Lewinsky emphasized that, although the relationship wasn’t abusive in the sexual sense, there was an abuse of power at play in the years following the affair.
“Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship,” Ms. Lewinsky wrote. “Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.”
While Ms. Lewinsky explicitly addressed her detractors in her latest essay, noting that none of her recent realizations absolve her of her responsibility for what happened—“I meet Regret every day,” she wrote—#MeToo and Time’s Up helped her understand that there was much more at play, and that the subsequent bullying and slut-shaming she’s endured was unwarranted and unjust. She was forced to bear the brunt of the blame, forever changed, while Mr. Clinton emerged relatively unscathed as a result of the latent misogyny that’s only recently received widespread exposure and condemnation in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein reckoning.
Women are all too accustomed to being held accountable for men’s actions. Ms. Lewinsky, for instance, isn’t the only one who’s had to pay for Mr. Clinton’s sins. His wife, former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, has fallen victim to this tendency repeatedly throughout her career. Most notably, shortly before the 2016 presidential election, Mrs. Clinton’s Republican opponent, Donald J. Trump, invited numerous women who’ve accused Mr. Clinton of sexual misconduct in the past to speak out against Mrs. Clinton in an effort to discredit her leadership potential. Despite being accused of sexual harassment and assault by more than a dozen women himself, Mr. Trump thought it smart strategy to dredge up Mr. Clinton’s past to damage Mrs. Clinton’s future.
Although many might think society has matured, when husbands stray, critics still reflexively chastise the wife for failing to fulfill her “duties.” Instead of portraying the husband as the cheater he is, outsiders attack the wife—a victim in her own right—by blaming her alleged “prudish” nature for his adulterous ways.
But women aren’t merely “stiffs” or “temptresses.”
We are more than vessels for pleasure and progeny.
We are individuals who exist separate from our relation to men.
Honestly, the dynamic between men and women over time seems inherently contradictory and hypocritical. While many lawmakers believe our gender cannot make informed decisions about medical and reproductive care, they’re the first to deem us responsible for the illicit “reproductive” activities of the men in our lives.
In her essay, Ms. Lewinsky also mentions her post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. Yes, even now, the activist—who’s made it her mission to address and prevent the very sort of bullying she experienced—still struggles with the anguish of being publicly outed and ostracized all these years later. As she wrote, Ms. Lewinsky often jokes that her tombstone will read MUTATIS MUTANDIS: “With Changes Being Made.”
Yet, if Ms. Lewinsky’s writing her own narrative now, chapter-by-chapter, then America must pen an apologetic preface. We botched the editing process the first time around, but we have the opportunity to make corrections moving forward. We can’t erase the pain caused in the past, but we can convey our remorse by making sure that no woman has to suffer such prolonged scrutiny. Let’s put an end to the #MeToo movement once and for all by ensuring no woman ever has to say “me, too” again.