Commentary Magazine

The Lessons of Monica Lewinsky

AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File

As a 22-year-old, Monica Lewinsky was not exactly a good role model for female teens and twenty-somethings. The affair, though certainly more a negative reflection of then-president Bill Clinton’s character, did not render her a shining beacon worthy of imitation, either.

That’s changed in the years since, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Lewinsky has become a voice of reason and nuance. In a piece just published in Vanity Fair, she wrote about her relationship with Clinton and about the power dynamics at play. Yet she explicitly contended that what “transpired between Bill Clinton and myself was not sexual assault,” even as she acknowledges that “we now recognize that it constituted a gross abuse of power.”

Lewinsky did not shy away from the complicated question of what constitutes consent in a situation like the one in which she found herself all those years ago. She explained that she “now see[s] 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.”

All true. And yet, again, Lewinsky made sure to overtly express that sexual assault did not feature in her relationship with Clinton. She chronicles why his actions were reprehensible and inappropriate: “He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college.” But she does not give herself a pass. “None of the above excuses me for my responsibility for what happened,” she explains. “I meet Regret every day.”

What Lewinsky has done is thread the needle of nuance in a way that has eluded many in the wake of #MeToo. She did not pretend that she and Clinton were equally irresponsible. He was married, she was not; he was her boss, she was young and naive and unthinking. But she also takes responsibility for her actions. She enters into a difficult, morally gray conversation about what consent means in the environment in which she found herself, without taking that moral grayness and warping it into a tale of assault.

Lewinsky could have easily seized this cultural moment and reframed her interactions with Clinton as a straightforward case of abuse, but she did not. Instead, she provided a worthy example of how we can engage in difficult, uncomfortable, morally ambiguous conversations about fraught issues in a way that prioritizes reflection, nuance, and honest characterizations of events.

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