Lewinsky and the price of shame

Most of us are too young to remember the “Lewinsky scandal” as it unfolded, and too unflappable in our pornography-soaked millennial minds to care about it later as we matured. So the President of the U.S was caught having an affair with a White House employee, so what? That’s literally just the plot of Scandal. As long as his dick wasn’t on the all-important red nuclear button, Bill Clinton’s sex-capades were hardly harming the world. But in 1998, Bill’s penile arrangements seemed a big deal – so to speak.

In an era of Nokia 3310s and MTV: before the Internet had fully bloomed, before 9/11, before ‘political scandal’ was a genre of scandal in its own right, Bill Clinton’s affair was the defining story of its era. Hillary reportedly chucked a lamp across the room at him: not because of the affair itself, no, but because the affair had gone public, a Dynasty-like moment of grandeur justifying her later ascension and beatification as a modern gay icon.

Rising global temperatures and instability in the Middle East maneuvered humanity’s priorities in the 1990s but a semen-stained dress took centre stage. Almost two decades on, former President Bill Clinton has come out the other end unscathed, a respectable global figure and humanitarian, and a champion of education for girls in the developing world. Though in a beautiful kick to gut of sexism, he is now mostly just thought of as ‘Hillary’s husband’. On the flipside, Monica – that is her name after all, not a half-spat, half-jesting ‘Lewinsky’, not ‘that woman’: Monica – is still, seventeen years later, defined by a daft youthful affair and a semen-stained dress.

Recently Monica Lewinsky, now forty-one, chose to give an intimate and politically timely Ted Talk on “the price of shame”, a subject that forcibly has become her forte. “Can I see a show of hands of anyone here who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22?” she asks her enamoured audience innocuously. In response not one hand in the auditorium rises. “Yep. That’s what I thought. So like me, at 22, a few of you may have also taken wrong turns and fallen in love with the wrong person, maybe even your boss. Unlike me, though, your boss probably wasn’t the president of the United States of America.” Presumptuous, eh? But an acute pinning down of the cruel aftereffects of a single, stupid affair that has reverberated in one woman’s adult life for decades afterwards. In the words of esteemed philosopher and fictional pop superstar Hannah Montana: “Everybody makes mistakes.”

Hounded by the press on an incomparable level, excluding only Princess Diana and the young lady creepily fed a Solero by Alex Salmond in that photograph, Monica Lewinsky is in a truly unique position to give insight to the terrifying and bizarre experience of being the global media’s prey. She frames herself as the first major victim of online slut shaming, to be followed later by the likes of Jennifer Lawrence: “…this scandal was brought to you by the digital revolution. That meant we could access all the information we wanted, when we wanted it, anytime, anywhere, and when the story broke in January 1998, it broke online. It was the first time the traditional news was usurped by the Internet for a major news story, a click that reverberated around the world.” Her seemingly ‘private’ phone calls were shortly blaring out across news channels and websites. Journalists camped outside her parents’ home. The very notion of normality was, for Monica Lewinsky, snatched away overnight.

Seventeen years on and the “digital revolution” has obviously not slowed down. Rather than merely usurp the traditional news, the Internet has for many now become their traditional format of news.

Technology, though, is just one thing. Much-needed changes have pushed their way down the clogged pipeline of history to transform our collective societal treatment of women in the public eye who dare to be caught enjoying the simple, timeless human act of sex. The Tess of the D’Urbervilles style scolding dished out to well-known women who display even a hint of sexual self-awareness and the mandated virginity pledges from female Disney stars are, thanks to feminist thinking, an eroding hallmark of an increasingly distant past. What would happen if the Lewinsky scandal broke today? Would a modern day Monica Lewinsky be labeled a tramp and a whore, as her original counterpart was in the 90s? Would an audience of jeering half-wits call her ‘blow job queen’ to her face live on television? It seems unlikely.

Sure, a modern U.S. presidential mistress would be called rude and crude names in the comments section below article links on Facebook. Even the Pope, the Dalai Lama and Dame Julie Andrews get that. If you try searching for a representative cross-section of public opinion in Facebook’s comments sections, your opinion of humanity will lessen with every passing typo and misplaced Nazi reference. In the modern world a U.S. presidential affair between an incumbent and a much younger White House aide would quite rightly open the gates for a flood of thinkpieces critiquing the unequal power dynamic between a powerful – in the truest sense – boss and their comparatively inexperienced (professionally speaking), recently-graduated subordinate. The commentariat of online media output would lead a charge of “Excuse me I think we’ve all had at least one regretful relationship” against the sweaty, pearl-clutching forces of sexual policing. Monica Lewinsky didn’t take any vows in a church with Hillary Clinton (though happily that will soon be legally possible across the U.S.). Bill did. The affair was not Monica’s to have; it was President Clinton’s.

The media circa 2015, for all its faults, would not allow a medieval narrative of ‘good man led astray by witchcraft’ to dominate discussion were President Obama caught with his high-waisted golf trousers unzipped. Overtly sexist bedroom (slash Oval Office) double standards could not and would not be allowed to dominate western media discourse. Shifts in media commentary, regardless of how positive they are, show how flexible and constantly evolving the society they exist to reflect can be. ‘Slut-shaming’ would not have been in the lexicon of 1990s journalism but were such an event as the Lewinsky scandal to re-occur, it’s hard to imagine modern journalists appeasing supporters of a classical witch burning, as many in ’98 (including, infamously, Vanity Fair magazine) did.

Monica Lewinsky in her Ted Talk appeals to the compassion of her audience with startlingly human reflections on the severe effect media shaming had on her mental wellbeing: “I was on the phone with my mom in September of 2010, and we were talking about the news of a young college freshman from Rutgers University named Tyler Clementi. Sweet, sensitive, creative Tyler was secretly webcammed by his roommate while being intimate with another man. When the online world learned of this incident, the ridicule and cyberbullying ignited. A few days later, Tyler jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death. He was eighteen. My mom was beside herself about what happened to Tyler and his family, and she was gutted with pain in a way that I just couldn’t quite understand, and then eventually I realised she was reliving 1998, reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night, reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open, and reliving a time when both of my parents feared that I would be humiliated to death, literally.”

“When this happened to me seventeen years ago, there was no name for it. Now we call it cyberbullying and online harassment… Have compassion for yourself. We all deserve compassion, and to live both online and off in a more compassionate world.”

[Rhys Harper – @RhysRHarper]

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