More than 20 years after she began facing public humiliation and demonization because of her affair with then-President Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky has become a prominent voice in reflecting on the ways powerful men abuse their positions over less powerful women.
“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,” she wrote in March for Vanity Fair. “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances — and the ability to abuse them — do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)”
In a new Vanity Fair essay published Tuesday, Lewinsky again examines this disparity in power as she explains why she decided to relive the painful memories of her experience for a forthcoming documentary series airing on A&E.
Central to her decision to participate was being able to redefine the narrative about herself, she wrote, noting how Clinton’s position of power has allowed him to escape the same levels of public scrutiny.
A recent example: Clinton’s continued refusal to personally apologize to her and accept responsibility for contributing to her public humiliation, which he demonstrated during a combative interview on NBC’s “Today” show in June.
This summer, Clinton participated in a number of interviews to promote a book with author James Patterson. In several of them, the former president appeared to be caught off guard by questions about the Me Too movement and gave tone-deaf answers, despite Me Too bringing an increased focus on and a re-examination of his affair with Lewinsky, as well as the multiple sexual misconduct allegations against him.
As it so often does, power throws a protective cape around the shoulders of the man, and he dictates the spin by denigrating the less powerful woman." Monica Lewinsky
“If you want to know what power looks like, watch a man safely, even smugly, do interviews for decades, without ever worrying whether he will be asked the questions he doesn’t want to answer,” Lewinsky wrote of Clinton.
In the “Today” interview, an indignant Clinton asserted to host Craig Melvin that he did not owe Lewinsky an apology. But Lewinsky wrote that the problem with his response was less about the apology directly and more about his insistence that he need not apologize.
“What feels more important to me than whether I am owed or deserving of a personal apology is my belief that Bill Clinton should want to apologize. I’m less disappointed by him, and more disappointed for him,” she wrote. “He would be a better man for it ... and we, in turn, a better society.”
Another example of the disparate power dynamic, according to Lewinsky, is how at the time of the affair, Clinton’s position of power protected him from experiencing as much public humiliation as she did.
Recalling his infamous Oval Office declaration that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” which turned out to be a lie, she said that at the time, she thought it was good that he was not planning to resign.
“Forty-five-year-old me sees that footage very differently,” she wrote Tuesday. “I see a sports coach signposting the playbook for the big game. Instead of backing down amid the swirling scandal and telling the truth, Bill instead threw down the gauntlet that day in the Oval Office: ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.’ With that, the demonization of Monica Lewinsky began. As it so often does, power throws a protective cape around the shoulders of the man, and he dictates the spin by denigrating the less powerful woman.”
In the essay, Lewinsky also explores how our public narratives are often shaped by men, as was the case with the coverage of her and Clinton’s affair — “history literally being written by men,” she wrote, explaining that she appreciated that the A&E docuseries “embodies a woman’s gaze,” with a majority of the editors and producers being women.
“Why did I choose to participate in this docuseries? One main reason: because I could,” she wrote. “Throughout history, women have been traduced and silenced. Now, it’s our time to tell our own stories in our own words.”