In wake of the #MeToo movement, men and women alike have come together to support survivors of sexual abuse and work together to ensure that those who perpetrate violence against women are held responsible. What Tarana Burke started in 2006 to support particularly poor and minority victims became a viral hashtag, garnering the attention of celebrities such as Ashley Graham and Lady Gaga. Bill Clinton, in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, said that, while he thinks the movement is ‘overdue,’ he would not do anything different regarding the sexual misconduct that tanked his career and ruined a woman’s reputation.
The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal came to light in 1998 after a three-year sexual relationship with then-President Bill Clinton and 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky. It was her first job out of college. The news would rock the entire nation, severing whatever career she could have had in politics and turning Lewinsky into a household synonym for ‘whore.’ She was an American laughingstock and she deserves an apology.
Clinton claims that he did apologize. In 1998, in a nationwide address, he announced that he indeed did have sexual relations with that woman and that ‘the sorrow he feels is genuine.’ I’m not doubting that he was sorry; I am skeptical that he truly grasped the magnitude of what the scandal had done and continued to do to Lewinsky.
Clinton apologized for himself. In an effort to rebuild his reputation, he took to America’s living rooms to redeem himself. He used his charm to persuade the American people into believing he was just a man who had made a mistake- definitely not the first one to do it, just the first to get caught.
The emotional toll of such a scandal on a young woman had to be devastating. Lewinsky confided that the humiliation and abuse she experienced during and after the trial left her with suicidal thoughts and PTSD. Her name is forever coupled with the President and their sexual relationship.
For those who feel little sympathy for Lewinsky because she made the decision to sleep with him, there are a few facts to remember. She was in her early twenties, just barely able to legally drink, and was approached by a 49-year-old who happened to be the most powerful man in the country.
Should she have slept with her married superior? Of course not. However, it is obvious that one has more blame than the other. Being a woman in a male-dominated industry, such as politics, is hard enough without the pressure of sexual advancements of someone in a higher position- or in this case, the highest position possible.
It is clear that there was an abuse of power on Clinton’s end, as Lewinsky later discussed. Whether it was out of fear, obligation or perhaps the promise of a bright political future, the margin for rejection becomes slim, much more so than someone who was not the President of the United States.
Clinton had to apologize for cheating on his wife, lying under oath and sleeping with his subordinate. Both are not blameless but I argue that Lewinsky’s actions were vastly different than those of the President. In a nation that reveres sex yet shames women for their part in it, Lewinsky will forever have to apologize for being a woman that had sex. Their sins are not equal and yet the latter faced a much harsher backlash.
Lewinsky writes in Vanity Fair magazine, “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.”
That is why it is important for Clinton to apologize to Lewinsky and his presidential address doesn’t cut it. If he wants to support the #MeToo movement, he needs to understand that he did not just sleep with Lewinsky, he took advantage of a young woman.
Using her scandal-fueled platform, she was able to advocate for women in similar situations, who felt the same helplessness, isolation and shame she did. Lewinsky was not the only woman to fall prey to the complexities of consent in the workplace and turned her public humiliation into a podium. After the complete demolition of her reputation, Monica Lewinsky deserves a hell of a lot more than an apology, but a real acknowledgment would be a start.