Monica Lewinsky is someone I didn’t think I’d write about. She of the intern shenanigans and the infamous blue dress and the subsequent less-than-presidential denial from President Clinton. Of course, we all sniggered at the footage of her greeting the President when he was campaigning, and chortled with glee at his “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” claim because clearly, he had. It was obvious. So blatant. And when Hillary Clinton’s first autobiography was a book club book, most of us immediately jumped to the Monica chapter, hoping for an exposé of all the gory details, albeit from Hillary’s perspective (spoiler alert: there were no gory details. At all. None. In fact, the whole book was a big, fat yawn).
I haven’t really thought much about Monica Lewinsky in the last 20 odd years. Like so many who become infamous celebrities (and often usually against their will) they burn bright like sparklers on Guy Fawkes night, then fade into oblivion. No one thinks about what kind of life they have after The Event. How The Event has affected them, and in what ways. Whether they’ve been able to lead normal lives after The Event, whatever that means. The lucky ones had The Event occur before the era of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram and hash tags, although traditional media could be just as cruel and unrelenting in their pursuit of The Eventees.
But back to Monica Lewinsky. She was always my pin-up girl for Whatever I’d Done In My Life Was Never As Bad As What She’d Done. I might have slept with more than my fair share of men in the 80s, and more than one of them of dubious character, but at least I didn’t have my mistakes—and there were more than one—paraded in front of the whole world for everyone to see and point at and snigger about. I lived out my shame in relative privacy. Monica was not so lucky. Her mistake was that she was singled out, flatteringly, by a rich and powerful and charismatic man. Unfortunately, he was married, a father and the President of the United States of America. Sorta, kinda one of the most high-profile and in the spotlight jobs someone can have. Her fatal mistake was not that she slept with him—as bad as that was—but that she trusted him.
One of my favourite writers, Cheryl Strayed, said that she would have made the same mistake and slept with Bill Clinton too. An older guy, powerful and charismatic, pays you attention. He makes you feel special and desirable and amazing. You, as a young woman, are finding your way, working out who you are in the world. You think you are worldly and sophisticated, but you are probably inexperienced and naive, especially when it comes to men. You trust that this older, charismatic man who makes you feel special and desirable and amazing will be using his powers for good and not evil. That he has your best interests at heart.
I would have too. Who thinks about consequences when you’re 22? Not I. Who thinks that the consequences of a mistake you made when you’re 22 will haunt you for the rest of your life? Probably no one. ~ Cheryl Strayed
And that’s why, like Cheryl Strayed, I would have slept with Bill Clinton too. In my early twenties, I knew nothing of the world, much less myself. I was immature and over-confident and too trusting. Much too trusting. I confused sex and physical attraction with love and intimacy, and I was stung badly by men who should have known better, but who certainly didn’t behave in the most chivalrous manner towards me. I was an easy target, who fell easily between the sheets with the slightest hint of flattery and attention. I would’ve absolutely, without a doubt, fallen for Bill Clinton’s charms, not least because my libido is a terrible judge of character. It would take a special sort of self-awareness to withstand that sort of onslaught. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to at 20. Hell, I could hardly withstand it at 50, and these men weren’t even Presidents of the United States! So I can understand why Monica did.
I think though, our treatment of Monica compared with our treatment of Bill, says so much about our society. It’s OK and forgivable for an older man in a powerful position to take advantage of a young, naive, inexperienced intern. It’s not ok and it’s unforgivable for a young, naive, inexperienced intern to succumb to his advances. We are outraged that a young woman would dare have an affair with a married man. We sympathise with him because clearly, he was the victim of her young, feminine, wily, witchy ways. After all, why else would a happily married man who was almost in charge of the ENTIRE world fall into bed with her? It’s OK and forgivable that she is unable to live the life she wants because she is haunted and chased and hounded by her mistake. No one is outraged that his life continues as normal, with speaking engagements and consulting roles and board appointments, that this mistake was but a small, tiny blip on his radar.
The hardest thing about this is that Bill Clinton continues to live a life of privilege and credibility. This mistake—which ended up being Monica’s mistake, not his—has hardly affected him. She will probably continue to pay for this mistake ad infinitum. It’s unfair and unjust. It speaks volumes about power and vulnerability. And trust and betrayal and personal ethics. Most of all it speaks about a society that shames and humiliates the weak, because it can.
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