Monica Lewinsky and I were both in our early 20s in the mid-’90s, both zaftig and flirtatious, both precocious and probably a bit entitled-seeming, and both employed in Washington institutions, though my time in the edit booths of NPR can hardly compare to her time in the private bathroom off the Oval Office.
As such, it wasn’t entirely paranoid for me to feel that we were perceived similarly in our respective workplaces. Unfounded suspicions about sexual indiscretions between me and my boss mounted during the time when Lewinsky’s presence seemed inescapable ― but the most scandalous thing I did at work was accidentally let the word “fuck” on the air (sorry about that, member stations).
Even absent our vague similarities, I daresay most women in my generation were somehow marked by the national obsession with Lewinsky’s affair with President Bill Clinton.
That private affair is something Lewinsky has reckoned with publicly, at length and on her own terms, at various junctures of her now-20 years of processing. First in Monica’s Story, the 1999 book she authorized from Princess Diana biographer Andrew Morton. Then, after years of quiet — as she designed handbags for Bendel’s and laid low in the West Village — re-emerging four years ago with an essay for Vanity Fair, where she is a contributor.
In that essay, she fiercely owned her consent. “I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship,” she wrote. “Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” She laid her trauma squarely at the feet of bible-salesman-turned-special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and his henchmen, as well as the Republicans who supported his investigation and the nascent 24-hour cable news machine that profited from the whole circus. This week, Vanity Fair published a follow-up to that essay, another reckoning, this time in the context of our new national vexation. It is not about the Maginot line between public and private, but between molestation and intimacy.
Like many, I was once again moved by Lewinsky’s candor. She always seemed smarter than anyone wanted to give her credit for as America terrorized and slut-shamed her. She is a model of thoughtfulness, of growing within one’s reality, of how to adapt to the trauma of one’s life. She always seemed to hold her own in what she calls the “House of Gaslight,” and does still.
What I want to challenge her on is the continued relevance of that essay from four years ago, and the lasting importance of what she represented to me 20 years ago. In her newest public statement on what she calls “the scandal,” she says that, post-#MeToo, she is rethinking what consent meant when she was a 21-year-old intern and he was the president. She tells us now that she’s “just beginning” to consider the “power differentials” in play between herself and Clinton. She says that now she understands that consent can be “very complicated.” Of course. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t want it, and it doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have had what she wanted. I don’t mean in the political sense, in the way it unraveled a moralistic nation, and I don’t even mean with respect to the Clinton’s marriage. For 20 years, I’ve been defending her private right to have that affair — for herself — and I don’t intend to stop now.
I’m glad that this person who spent years “swimming in that sea of Aloneness,” as she writes, now feels a sisterhood in the current conversation, “instantly welcomed into a tribe” for the first time since her life. For Lewinsky the person — who I’ve long imagined opening a bottle of wine with, and curling up on a couch to talk about regrettable sex, ill-advised haircuts and the complications of the human heart — I’m moved and assured by this new stage in her process.
Nevertheless, I want to preserve the power of her pre-#MeToo reading of her agency, the one from the 2014 essay, in which she is not an icon or an idea in the cultural imagination, but a young woman who makes the choice to act on her most intimate desires. I want to fight for her to have that thing she wanted most of all in her 20s: to fall in love with the most powerful man in the world, and to have him shine back on her, to be needy and hungry together, to join in a mutually desired intimacy. I want her to keep “owning desire,” as she describes how many of us thought of our pro-sex feminism in those days.
As much as I could imagine how Lewinsky fell for him — his intelligence and charm have been as legendary as “the scandal” itself — there was never any question that Bill Clinton was a dog, and worse, an abuser. Lewinsky may have consented to sexual relations with him, but other women clearly reported abuse, like White House volunteer aide Kathleen Willey, who said she endured Trump-style groping while Lewinsky was still living in the Lewis & Clark college dorms. We all knew before he was elected that Clinton felt entitled to using women for his own pleasure, whether they said they wanted him to or said they did not.
But back then, Lewinsky mirrored any of us who have ever fallen hard, expanded our sense of ourselves and our bodies and our futures, and then lost everything but the experience. We perceived our circumstances as “movie-sized,” as Liz Phair sang back then, drily celebrating ambivalent sex, and mining the negatives of sex-positivity, and Lewinsky’s was the most epic movie ever seen. That she wanted him mattered. That she got him mattered.
That she was put through hell for it mattered, too. In Washington, we watched it happen every day, in real time: the stakeouts at the Mayflower hotel, where she was questioned, and the parade of hypocrites filing into chambers on the Hill. Newt Gingrich, leading the moral charge while having an affair of his own throughout the impeachment hearings, alongside Henry Hyde, whose own affair lasted five years. These men and their cronies alleged that the issue wasn’t the sex itself, but Clinton’s lies about the relationship. But we all knew a moralist sex panic when we saw one, and we all knew the GOP was deploying it for political ends.
Those of us who lived through those culture wars know how shame clung to desire in the years that followed. The “culture of humiliation,” as Lewinsky called it in her earlier Vanity Fair essay, emerged as the Internet weaponized and broadcast that moral sex panic, which came to be known as “slut-shaming.” Lewinsky clear-mindedly explored such bullying in her own TED talk. Her new bioposy of her experience doesn’t find new shame in the tissue, but it does re-diagnose her desire, excising elements of her agency. I agree that, as Lewinsky writes, that the dynamics that delivered a young White House intern into an intimate relationship with the president are “very, very complicated,” as is our larger examination of those dynamics in circumstances that may be nationally, or just personally, movie-sized.
But within in our current reassessment of sex and power, owning — and fulfilling — desire must remain a feminist right and priority. That’s the case whether desire has led to sex we’ve regretted or sex that has thrilled us, or both. Even if, when we process it days or weeks or years later, complications emerge that we may not have expected. Owning desire matters even more when our necessary discourse about consent threatens to erase it. Call me a relic of the ’90s, but I’m not willing to let it go.
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.