I love Monica Lewinsky. I always have. I remember the first time I saw her face on the cover of Newsweek in my high school American history class, and far from being horrified that our president (who I also loved) had clearly had sexual relations with “that woman,” I felt secretly thrilled he’d chosen to do so with “one of us.” (On Twitter today, my friend David Levy concurred that I was not alone: “I thought USY was going to give her an alumni award at the time.”)
Due to both my deep personal affinity for her and my generally being a fair-minded human being, I also felt that the ritual shaming and persecution she endured as a result of her brief and consensual, if inappropriate, relationship with a powerful man was an utter travesty, a morally repugnant display that left the shameful hypocrisy of our society and the institutional sexism which we live with and enable daily laid hideously bare for all to see.
Monica agrees with me—if she’s been revolutionary in any capacity, it’s the way she, more than any other public figure, has been so consistently unable to hide her hurt, to keep us from realizing she’s a human being with feelings—and in an new essay in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, speaks out for the first time in more than 10 years about the trauma of those years and the way they’ve affected her ability to lead a normal life in a way that none of the other relevant parties have experienced. Hers, she asserts, was the first public shaming to be driven by the Internet, the Drudge Report, the nascent and frantic 24-hour-digital news cycle. If it had happened today, she says, when her Facebook profile would have been pored over and her every move scrutinized on YouTube and Twitter and god knows what else in the time it took me to type this sentence, it would have been so much worse.
This is the one point on which Lewinsky and I (respectfully!) disagree. It would have been worse, but thanks to the open floodgates of the feminist blogosphere and the vast number of female writers and thinkers who are able to make their voices heard outside of the New York Times Op-Ed section (and the old-guard capital “F” feminists who at the time, she laments, seemed to find their duty to prop up the “woman-friendly” president by publicly denigrating her), it would have also been so much better. I have to believe that Jezebel, Feministing, NY Mag’s the Cut, and hundreds of other feminist-identified blogs would have rushed to her defense. The much-maligned but always-fearless activists on Twitter (many of whom, like me, had their feminism galvanized by observing the Lewinsky scandal as teenagers) would have rushed into the breach to point how just how ridiculous it was that a 22-year-old intern, however “narcissistic”—and show me one 22-year-old girl who isn’t—should somehow be held accountable for almost bringing down the Leader of the Free World. If you don’t believe me, here’s a thought experiment: imagine what Lena Dunham would tweet about it.
Lewinsky still would have been attacked constantly. But she also would have seen how many millions of us were, and have always been, on her side. It may be cold comfort to her now, but I hope that even cold it’s better than nothing.