The Monica Lewinsky scandal is arguably the most renowned unadjudicated instance of sexual harassment in the workplace. Indeed, to this day the illegality of President Clinton’s actions re Lewinsky is a nonexistent aspect of the public discourse as everyone is focused on her supposed guilt and shame.
While in some countries, such as Israel and France, workplace sexual harassment is a criminal offence, in the USA it is included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a human rights issue. Perhaps it is time for the USA to reconsider and add it to the criminal statutes. In any case, by the time the Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, American courts had already handled numerous other complaints in this category. Yet, instead of demanding accountability on the part of the most powerful citizen of the USA and empathizing with Lewinsky, she was shafted upon disclosure of the affair and turned into a globally recognized “slut” and “sexual predator”.
Humiliated and shamed, her life was turned upside down. As a result of the notoriety, nobody would hire her for a regular job. From her own descriptions of what transpired, she may even have been invited for job interviews by ghoulishly curious potential employers who just wanted to meet her in person, never having intended on hiring her in fact. Unable to find a regular job, then, she allowed herself to be interviewed for television, a book and magazine articles, and it seems the money was still insufficient to cover her legal costs. Sadly, she was scorned for “cashing in” on her “fame”. Prematurely let go from a profitable advertising campaign because she was “that woman”, she tried unsuccessfully to develop a handbag design and manufacturing firm. Even before facing these humiliations, she may have been at risk of suicide, not because of the end of the relationship with Clinton, but because of the media circus and what it did to her image and reputation. Those were the days of the emerging Internet and she was splattered all over it.
While Lewinsky herself is talking today about her public shaming, and others are collaborating with her in talking only about this, I think we should look at what preceded the shaming – workplace sexual harassment – because without the harassment there would have been no pretext for the shaming. Perhaps it is the shaming that has made it more difficult for her to overcome the consequences of the hugely inappropriate behaviour of then 40 year-old President Clinton, who engaged in sexual activity with the 22 year-old White House employee (she was an unpaid intern for only the first month of the “affair”).
I find it reprehensible that well-known feminists chose to mock her rather than to support her. Was it because of their gratitude toward Clinton for certain female-friendly legislation and appointments that they ignored the power dynamics of the Clinton-Lewinsky “relationship” and blamed her? Barbara Ledeen, executive director for policy at the Independent Women’s Forum, a lone unheeded voice, was quoted in a Vanity Fair article in 1998 as saying:
The C.E.O. of a corporation wouldn’t have had time to pack up his briefcase before he was fired for [something like] this…
However, nobody else ever seems to have picked up on this aspect of the scandal: the double-whammy of having been a victim of workplace sexual harassment and then a victim of the social ostracism that resulted from its disclosure.
After having laid low for over a decade, Lewinsky has recently resurfaced with renewed purpose: helping prevent others from falling prey to online bullying. This is certainly a worthy cause and hopefully one that people will allow her some dignity in performing. As part of her reappearance, she sets out to clarify the narrative of events from her own perspective. In a May 2014 article in Vanity Fair, Lewinsky writes:
Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.
Like many survivors, she tries to maintain a sense of control over what happened and claiming the relationship was consensual (between equals) is one way of doing that. The abusive aftermath, and the power differential that was brought to bear in executing it, is one of the kinds of eventualities the law against harassment seeks to prevent.
The law recognizes two kinds of workplace sexual harassment: quid pro quo and creating a hostile environment. In the first instance, an employee is pressured into accepting sexual advances in order to earn a promotion or raise, or threatened with loss of job status or even the job itself if the sex/relationship is rejected. The second form is the one that pertains in this case:
A hostile environment is the more common type of sexual harassment, but more difficult to prove. This exists when an employee is made to feel uncomfortable and suffers emotional and/or mental strain due to frequent exposure to offensive sexual talk and jokes, pornographic images and[/or] repeated unwelcome sexual advances, although there is no [apparent] threat to the employee’s advancement in the work place or continued employment.
Patience, please, this is the aspect that is really relevant:
Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). [Emphasis mine.]
How does this relate to the Lewinsky situation? We cannot say that the sexual advances were unwelcome. She claims that she fell in love and was a willing partner, perhaps even the initiator; in an interview on ABC News, she says:
Straight out of college, a 22 year-old intern in the White House and, more than averagely romantic, I fell in love with my boss, in a 22-year-old sort of way. It happens.
However, Clinton was well aware of the power imbalance between him and his young starry eyed intern-soon-to-be-paid-employee. Not only was he her boss, he was also President of the United States, and in both capacities he should have understood the heavy obligation to behave responsibly. There is no way that one can give them equal responsibility for this “affair”. He should have drawn the line, made the boundaries clear, and if he was after an extramarital affair he should have looked for one outside of his work environment. Not possible when you are the president of the United States? Too bad! Then control your urges until you are no longer president of the United States. You do not have the luxury of doing otherwise. Does he even care about the havoc he caused in this young woman’s life?
Moreover, it is clear that the liaison resulted in “an adverse employment decision”.
Overnight I went from being a completely private figure to being a publicly humiliated one.
Even before the public outing of their relationship, other staff at the White House noticed that something untoward was going on. Obviously unable to call their boss to order, they instead maneuvered to keep Lewinsky far from him; they fired her from her job at the White House and transferred her to a new position in the Pentagon. Later, when the full story emerged, she lost even that job and, as described above, was unable to find alternative employment. That, to me, seems like a series of adverse employment decisions or consequences.
The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
So one could perhaps argue that Betty Curry (the President’s secretary) could have sued Clinton for workplace sexual harassment, as I cannot imagine that Curry felt good about the role she was manipulated into playing after Lewinsky had been transferred to the Pentagon. She arranged secret meetings between Clinton and Lewinsky, made phone connections between them herself so that the calls would not be logged and delivered gifts from her to him. More amazingly, Curry sometimes even had to come to work on weekends solely to let Lewinsky into the president’s office. That sounds like abuse of power to me and I hope you are as disgusted to learn about this as I am. In addition, and perhaps no less importantly, we also need to ask ourselves whether or not any other White House intern stood a chance of being hired given the “special relationship” between Lewinsky and the President for which Clinton alone needs to answer.
In the end, under growing pressure due to an impending harassment suit lodged against him by Paula Jones, Clinton ended his relationship with Lewinsky. Here is how she describes it, according to The Starr Report.
The situation, he [Clinton] stressed, was not Ms. Lewinsky’s fault. Ms. Lewinsky, weeping, tried to persuade the President not to end the sexual relationship, but he was unyielding, then and subsequently.
If he had the strength to end the relationship at that time, then he certainly had the strength to end it before it even began. Being older, more experienced, aware of the law, and responsible for the well-being of an entire nation, he should have possessed enough foresight to comprehend the potentially explosive nature of their relationship, not only for him, but for his young employee as well. While this naïve, love-besotted and attractive young woman may have pursued him, perhaps even relentlessly, Clinton had the choice to either give in to his baser instincts or to rise above the situation and behave like a (law abiding) mensch. Instead of telling her that while he found her attractive it was inappropriate that they get involved, he chose to act like a hormone-overwhelmed teenager who took what was offered (and if we believe Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey, among others, sometimes took what was not offered as well).
In looking back, Lewinsky writes:
I, myself, deeply regret what happened between me and President Clinton. . . . In my early 20s, I was too young to understand the real-life consequences, and too young to see that I would be sacrificed for political expediency. I look back now, shake my head in disbelief, and wonder: what was I—what were we—thinking?
I am wondering something different – what would Clinton, the father, think if what had been done to Monica Lewinsky had happened to his own daughter, Chelsea? Would he then have been able to recognize the responsible and guilty party as being the older man, the boss, who should have known better?
Because of the Statute of Limitations, there is no longer any chance for legal justice for Lewinsky should she ever decide she wants it. She will never get her day in court. I have no doubt insurmountable political forces kept her from filing charges when she could have. Such forces did a good job ensuring that even today any discussion of what happened does not include the issue of workplace sexual harassment, the horrid abuse of, in this case, male power over a female employee for some random moments of sexual gratification, perpetuated after the fact by the same abuse of male power that twists things around until just about the whole world, including her, says it’s her own fault. It is still not clear to Monica, apparently, that at 22 she did not do something regrettable; at 22, something illegal was done to her!
My heart goes out to the young woman who had her whole promising life ahead of her swept away, not only by a horny president who broke the law, but also by the political and social machinery that protected the perpetrator and unleashed upon the victim a tsunami of venom and hatred. Let us finally direct our scorn in the right direction.