Monica Lewinsky’s “Vanity Fair” essay captures the danger of internalized misogyny
They make workplace courtships look romantic on TV, but in my experience, sexual relationships between an employee and their superior is uncomfortable at best — and abuse at worst. Most of my encounters fell in that confusing space where the lines I’d drawn were erased because the person in power was able to leverage my consent. Like that time in my 20s when I was a waitress at a restaurant chain, and an innocent workplace flirtation between a manager and me led to an ill-advised drunken hookup that I regretted the moment it began. The next day, I woke up feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and most of all, guilty for having an inappropriate relationship with my boss — one I never wanted to happen in the first place.
I remember thinking to myself: This is all my fault. Years passed before I realized that the blame I’d carried with me wasn’t my burden to bear — at least, not alone. Like so many women, I have lived most of my life with an unintentional bias against my own gender, one that equates being a woman to being a permanent scapegoat. It has only been recently, in light of the #MeToo movement and the ongoing public conversation about power, abuse, and consent, that I have been able to recognize how my own internalized misogyny helped develop this misguided, damaging belief.
I am not the only woman seeing things in a new light. 20 years after her highly publicized affair with President Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky is still coming to terms with her experience.
In a deeply personal essay for Vanity Fair, Lewinsky opened up about her relationship with #MeToo, and the many ways the movement has transformed her perspective on her affair with the former president.
In the op-ed, Lewinsky describes the last two decades as a difficult period of “self-reckoning,” one that she has only been able to navigate through years of therapy, personal introspection, and the current uprising of women’s narratives. false
"The reason this is difficult is that I’ve lived for such a long time in the House of Gaslight, clinging to my experiences as they unfolded in my 20s and railing against the untruths that painted me as an unstable stalker and Servicer in Chief, Lewinsky explains in her essay. “An inability to deviate from the internal script of what I actually experienced left little room for re-evaluation; I cleaved to what I ‘knew.’ So often have I struggled with my own sense of agency versus victimhood. (In 1998, we were living in times in which women’s sexuality was a marker of their agency—’owning desire.’ And yet, I felt that if I saw myself as in any way a victim, it would open the door to choruses of: ‘See, you did merely service him.’)
The internal conflict Lewinsky describes — that pull between what she knows to be true and what she has always believed to be true about women — is one that so many women struggle with every day. From a young age, girls are, to use Lewinsky’s eloquent phrasing, living in the “House of Gaslight” where we are manipulated by our male-dominated society into believing women are the gender with less inherent value. This misogyny becomes internalized, and shows up in menacing ways later on in life in the form of slut-shaming, scapegoating, discrediting, and doubting other women — even ourselves.
In Lewinsky’s case, it led to her taking on all of the blame for her relationship with Clinton, despite the fact that he was 27 years her senior, her boss, and the most powerful man in the world.
For years, she dutifully played her role as scapegoat and often explained her affair as a consensual relationship without abuse. In 2018, Lewinsky is thinking about it differently.
“I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.), Lewinsky explains. "Now, at 44, 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. 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 her essay, Lewinsky says that reaching this level of healing takes a lot of time and a lot of support.
Coming to terms with her trauma, understanding her experience, and finally, as she says, “cleaving” away those damaging untruths about herself and women in general required years of therapy. Now that the #MeToo movement has become a national conversation, Lewinsky hopes that providing professional help to women in need is part of it.
“My hope is that through Time’s Up (or, perhaps, another organization) we can begin to meet the need for the resources that are required for the kind of trauma therapy vital to survival and recovery,” she says. “Regrettably, it’s often only the privileged who can afford the time and the money to get the help they deserve.”
During these 20 years, there have been conversations about how the press mistreated Lewinsky, how the FBI harassed the young intern and her family, how the President himself distanced himself from Lewinsky and spun his own narrative about the affair. Now, thanks to the brave chorus of voices saying #MeToo and Time’s Up, that conversation is finally starting to shift. After two decades, years of counseling, and a lot of hard work, Lewinsky feels as though she is ready to “embrace opportunities to move into spaces that allow me to break out of old patterns of retreat or denial.” Don’t we owe it to her to do the same thing?