This long Vox essay by Constance Grady on America’s evolving reactions to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair annoyed the hell out of me for various reasons. Its basic thesis is that Lewinsky was victimized by Bill Clinton during their affair, because of the “power differential” between the lovers, with this power differential making Clinton’s behavior during the affair “predatory,” in a classic #metoo sense:
Today, the national consensus lies more or less with Hirshman in casting Lewinsky as a victim who deserves our sympathy: Lewinsky was Clinton’s subordinate, and he took advantage of her, and that was wrong. We have a collective sense, moreover, that we failed her in our endless national slut-shaming of her. Matt Yglesias’s simple and correct assertion from 2017 more or less lines up with the consensus on sexual morality today: “Fifty-something leaders of organizations shouldn’t be carrying on affairs with interns who work for them regardless of whether the affair is in some sense consensual.”
Still, over and over again, as America delves into the details of this story, discomfort lingers. There is some awkward snag that seems to exist around the idea that by her own account, Lewinsky eagerly pursued Clinton. We seem to have trouble believing that both this fact and the idea that he never should have allowed himself to be seduced may be true at once. . . .
Intellectually, I know that it was Clinton’s responsibility, as the 49-year-old president, to refuse advances from a 22-year-old unpaid intern. Moreover, I’m aware that Clinton has been accused multiple times of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Within that context, Clinton’s decision to carry on a sexual relationship with his young intern appears less like a one-time lapse of judgment than like part of a continued pattern of predatory behavior.
This is all a bunch of inane bullshit, that recapitulates Yglesias’s preposterous argument that Clinton should have resigned for abusing his position when it was revealed he had an affair with Lewinsky, because doing so would have constituted a big advance in the war against sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Let’s try to figure out exactly how, during their affair, Bill Clinton victimized Monica Lewinsky (What Clinton did to Lewinsky after the affair is a very different story).
First, every account of their affair that describes Lewinsky as a “White House intern” is false, and people like Grady and Yglesias, who continue to frame the facts in this way are consciously or to be charitable perhaps semi-consciously lying about them. The affair lasted, in one form or another, 25 months, from November 15, 1995, to December 28, 1997. Lewinsky was technically — and only technically — a White House intern for the first eleven days of this time frame: she had accepted a full-time position at the White House on November 13, 1995; that job officially began on November 26th. The continual repetition of this false narrative is actually an important feature of the attempt to portray Clinton as predatory and Lewinsky as vicitimized.
Second, Lewinsky by her own account initiated the affair, and pursued it relentlessly and even obsessively, long after Clinton tried to end it.
Third, the affair featured very little actual sex, even broadly construed — almost none after the first four months: they had only two in-person sexual encounters between March of 1996 and the end of 1997. On the other hand, the couple shared a great deal of other forms of intimacy, including dozens of in-person meetings and phone calls, and many gift exchanges: Lewinsky ended up giving Clinton around 30 gifts, while he gave her 18.
Fourth, Lewinsky spent many months during the latter part of 1997 not so subtly pressuring Clinton to help get her a job, when it became evident to both of them that White House staffers who had long-standing suspicions about the nature of their relationship were going to block all attempts to transfer Lewinsky back to the White House from the Pentagon, where she had been moved in April 1996 by these same already-suspicious staffers.
Indeed, this pressure was successful enough that Bill Richardson, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, personally interviewed Lewinsky at her Watergate apartment for a UN job. Richardson offered her the job, which she eventually turned down, because in the interim she convinced Clinton to get Vernon Jordan — one of the most powerful and connected lawyers in Washington — to get her a private sector job in New York City.
How all this adds up to “victimhood” is a little obscure. Lewinsky’s own account makes it obvious she initially pursued an affair with Clinton, who she had barely exchanged a word with prior to their first assignation, because she was getting an erotic thrill out of doing so. Later, she fell in love with him, and again it’s striking how the final 21 of the 25 months of their affair featured almost no sex, but a great deal of old-fashioned romance, including a lot of old-fashioned romantic conflict.
For his part Clinton, who entered into the affair just as rapaciously and unsentimentally as his paramour, seems to have grown genuinely affectionate towards and even protective of Lewinsky, especially after he finally, after several false starts, successfully terminated the blatantly sexual elements of their affair in the spring of 1997. (He was also of course aware of the damage she might do if she were to expose the affair, which indeed she implied she might do in a letter to Clinton in the summer of 1997, at the same time that she was pressing him to help her get a better job).
None of this is any sort of excuse for Clinton’s behavior, of course — and most especially for his callous and inexcusable betrayal of Lewinsky in January of 1998, when he chose to lie about the affair, after his former lover had been forced to disclose it under penalty of perjury, by Paula Jones’s lawyers.
Nor is any of this any excuse for the disgusting and deplorable way the media treated Lewinsky after that disclosure. But Monica Lewinsky was not in even the most attenuated or metaphorical sense the victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment. She and Bill Clinton had a long and emotionally complex love affair, which was about far more than its few sexual encounters, that the endlessly loathsome Ken Starr lingered over in such grotesquely voyeuristic detail.
It ended badly, as such affairs almost always do — and there’s no question that the aftermath of the affair was a disgrace to America’s legal, political, and journalistic institutions. But to treat the affair itself as an example of a powerful man victimizing a powerless woman has always been and will continue to be an absurd interpretation of these events.