How Monica Lewinsky Shaped My Attitude About Sexuality

My pre-teen years were a crash course in slut-shaming masquerading as the nightly news.
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Sarah Sahagian
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My pre-teen years were a crash course in slut-shaming masquerading as the nightly news.

I was 11 years old in January 1998, when Monica Lewinsky became the most infamous woman in the world. It was 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning when I first saw her face on the cover of a newspaper. I had woken up early, because I was scheduled to write the Secondary School Admissions Test, a standardized exam taken mostly by the children whose parents want them to attend prep schools.

Lewinsky's face loomed large on the paper's front page, framed by gloriously thick, dark hair. I couldn't remember ever seeing a young woman take up that much space on the front page before. I was excited. 

"Who is that, daddy?" I asked my father, who was reading the story with a world-weary expression. He knew the drill of political sex scandals, but I was young enough that I still didn't.

"President Clinton had an affair with her," my father replied. He was frank about it. The world did not yet know what a media circus the story would become, but he probably suspected there was no point in hiding the truth.

In the coming months, I watched Lewinsky dominate the media. The ladies of The View practically devoted their show to the scandal, and the evening news was full of stories about the tapes Lewinsky's supposed friend, Linda Tripp, had secretly recorded of her. Perhaps saddest of all was how Maureen Dowd, who purports to be an advocate for feminism, regularly slut-shamed her in the pages of The New York Times. No one came to Lewinsky's aid.

The first picture most people saw of Monica Lewinsky, myself included.

The first picture most people saw of Monica Lewinsky, myself included.

I am part of a generation of women whose understanding of sexuality developed with The Monica Lewinsky Scandal as its backdrop. As we navigated the awkward throes of puberty, Lewinsky was publicly navigating the dangerous world of womanhood — a world where a blowjob could ruin your life.

While Bill Clinton went on to be acquitted of the impeachment charges stemming from the denial the affair, Lewinsky's life floundered for years. 

She was reduced to a punchline, a person whose weight was derided by white male comedians, whose attractiveness was hotly debated, and whose intelligence was dismissed. The public humiliation, she later revealed in her excellent TED Talk, was so horrific it almost drove her to suicide. The overachiever who snagged an internship at the White House as a young woman became a pariah, branded a silly girl with nothing to offer — all because of a sexual favor. Bill Clinton, however, emerged practically unscathed. He started a foundation and became a respected elder statesman who continues to represent America on diplomatic missions.

I must admit, I was not a completely passive consumer of Lewinsky's tale. As middle schoolers, my friends and I were all fascinated by the scandal. We reveled in lurid details about semen stains on blue dresses and tried to wrap our heads around wanting to perform oral sex at all, let alone on a man more than twice our age. It never occurred to us Lewinsky might be the victim of Clinton abusing his position of power, of exploiting the allure and prestige of his office for sexual favors from interns the White House was supposed to be teaching about the art of governance. Instead, they taught the world how to slander and humiliate a young woman for performing sex acts.

While my seventh-grade self was fixated on, and admittedly somewhat titillated by, what we knew of the scandal, more than anything, it scared me. I was terrified of having my life ruined by sex the way Lewinsky's was. The media and public opinion had declared her a fallen woman who, still in her early twenties, was already beyond redemption. I was petrified sex could do that to me, too. While I had a few paltry hours of Sex Ed in school, it was television and the early internet that provided me with most of my applied knowledge of how sex worked in society. 

In the end, my pre-teen years were a crash course in slut-shaming masquerading as the nightly news.

Looking back, it's no wonder that so many of the girls who grew up watching Lewinsky's public humiliation soon adopted Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson as our pop idols. While these two millennial pop stars were sexualized by their music labels, they were very vocal about not actually having sex. They might have performed sexy dances, or worn what were considered traditionally sexy clothes, but sex was something they were adamant they would not have until marriage. Blonde, conventionally pretty and sweet, they were the perfect post-Lewinsky spokespeople for the moral panic about young women's sexuality.

The currency of virginity defined their public images so much so much so that Simpson even released a pop song promoting abstinence. Then, when it was rumored that Spears ultimately had sex with long-time boyfriend Justin Timberlake outside of wedlock, many fans seemed to see it as a betrayal. 

For an impressionable young woman like myself, it seemed as if success were dependent on having an intact hymen.

Throughout my adolescence, I maintained the problematic view that women's sexuality was a source of disempowerment. I refrained from dating or kissing boys I liked on more than one occasion because I was terrified people would lose respect for me if I admitted to experiencing physical attractions to them. Britney Spears, after all, was at her most popular when she was a teenage virgin, then became a butt of national jokes when she had the audacity to grow up and assert her sexuality by getting pregnant and having two children. Prudishness was my protection. It was the armour I used to protect myself from a slut-shaming world.

Thankfully, by the time I landed in my undergraduate program, I was a critical enough thinker to embrace feminism. I took an Introduction to Women's Studies course by accident — because it fit into my timetable — and realized I had found my salvation. I spent my late teens and early twenties happily ensconced in the feminist academy, completing an undergraduate degree in Gender Studies. It was the first step on the road to reforming the way I thought about women and sex.

While I was immersed in progressive feminist education for four years, for some reason, during my very educational time there, it never occurred to me to reconsider Monica Lewinsky. It never occurred to me that what happened to her was, in fact, a feminist issue. So strong was the media brainwashing I received as an adolescent that, despite the fact that I now knew what slut-shaming was and that it was wrong, I failed to appreciate how wrong the media's aggressive slut-shaming of her was, or how it might have contributed to a fear of female sexuality it took years of sex-positive feminist education for me to overcome.

Everything changed when I was 22, the same age as Lewinsky when she first became embroiled with President Clinton. As I arrived at the London School of Economics to start my master's degree in Gender Studies, I was suddenly confronted with Lewinsky all over again. I learned she, too, had attended the LSE, just a few years before, obtaining a master's degree in social psychology. Someone the media had manipulated me into believing was merely an airhead starfucker was in fact, a curious academic with a graduate education from an internationally respected school. I began to question everything I once knew about her.

Lewinsky was an inescapable presence during my master's degree. As I delved deeper and deeper into feminist theory, the reality of a woman whose youth was sacrificed on the altar of the patriarchy was with me every day. Lewinsky, it turned out, had actually lived in the same dorm as I did. Only a few years before, she had dined in the same dining hall, watched TV in the same common room, and printed her essays in the same cramped computer lab. For the first time, Lewinsky was no longer the dehumanized abstraction the media trained me to see her as when I was still a girl. Someone who had previously symbolized the dangers of female sexuality was now a real person, and something of a hero to me.

Over my time at the LSE, I came to admire Lewinsky greatly. Graduate school is challenging enough at the best of times, but I imagined her writing interminably long papers and desperately seeking books at the library, all the while living with the knowledge that everyone who recognized her knew the most intimate details of her life — details she had never intended to become public. I was in awe of her bravery.

After years of education about feminist issues — both inside and outside the academy — I now see Monica Lewinsky's story differently. I no longer view it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of women's sexuality. Remembering the scandal that erupted toward the end of the '90s no longer makes me scared of sex, but it does make me fear sexism. I now see the scandal as a cautionary tale about patriarchy.

The woman Bill Clinton cruelly dismissed as "that woman" at a press conference was literally Monica Lewinsky, but in effect, she was any woman whose sexuality has ever rubbed up against the patriarchal powers that be. Today I understand that in The Monica Lewinsky Scandal, sex was never the real issue. The problem was — and is — that we live in a world that treats women's sexuality as problematic.