Can We Please Stop Slut-Shaming Monica Lewinsky Now?

Featureflash / Shutterstock.com
Featureflash / Shutterstock.com

According to several news reports, Monica Lewinsky was asked in the forthcoming issue of Porter magazine, out this Friday, whether she would consider changing her last name to escape her infamy. She, rightly, said no. As quoted in Page Six, Lewinsky responded, “No one else in the investigation had to change their name. Why should I? I use aliases at times to protect my privacy, but I’m not ashamed of who I am.” The idea that she perhaps should change her name is ludicrous and insulting in equal measures. Firstly, her image has been shown around the world countless times since the scandal broke, so even if she did change her name, once a prospective interviewer saw her in person, they’d immediately know who she was.

In her first article for Vanity Fair, she wrote of a disheartening response from a job interviewer, who told her, “You’re clearly a bright young woman and affable, but for us—and probably any other organization that relies on grants and other government funding—it’s risky. We would first need a Letter of Indemnification from the Clintons.” This is the legacy she carries with her, one that strikes me as an inordinately high price to pay for someone who did not actually break the law, but instead offended our collective sense of morality. I highly doubt that same employer would hire her if she simply changed her name to “Monica Lewis.”

More fundamentally, though, the idea that Lewinsky should go so far as to change her name is sexist and cruel. Hasn’t she already paid a large enough price? As she pointed out, Bill Clinton wasn’t asked to change his name. But this year, as Lewinsky has stepped back into the public eye in an effort to contextualize both her actions and the media frenzy they inspired, has faced unfair criticisms that essentially tell her to be quiet, slink away and never grow up. There’s a recurring idea that she should spend the rest of her life essentially apologizing for what she did to all of America as a young intern, as if her youthful affair was a personal affront.

Last month, Timothy Stanley took to CNN to lament that “Lewinsky has joined Twitter, which will allow her to make uncensored remarks in the course of the 2016 campaign.” How dare she use a free online service like millions of others around the world to actually contribute directly to society’s conversations? But in fact, that’s exactly Stanley’s problem with her. Rather than allowing her the opportunity to be more than “that woman,” he wants her to be forever contrite, docile and silent. Why? Because of Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospect. Stanley wrote, “Imagine that your husband was caught cheating and the contents of your marriage were discussed every night on television. Would you feel happy about his mistress reappearing 16 years later to drag the whole thing up again, and even to play the victim?”

By pitting the two women against each other, he turns Lewinsky’s emergent anti-bullying activism into a mere catfight. He is not the only one saying, essentially, that Monica Lewinsky will never have anything of value to say. This is the price sexualized women are meant to pay, whoever they are (see Kim Kardashian). It reminds me of what Rachel Sklar has to say about Sarah Lacy’s response to Uber admitting they were prepared to dig up dirt on the tech journalist:

Hear that, victims? YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO WIN. You are just supposed to cower. Anything else makes you a hypocrite. So if you’re actually, you know, smart and knowledgeable and stuff, just keep that to yourself. Wouldn’t want to bug anyone.

Another charge Sklar highlights against Lacy is being a “media master,” a double-edged sword also wielded against Lewinsky. By using the media to tell her story, she’s been branded as self-serving, even when she attempts to use her name recognition to highlight the issue of bullying and share her side of the scandal. The Hill reported that Stop CyberBullying founder Parry Aftab warned that Lewinsky could actually hurt the group’s efforts because of her notoriety. They quote Aftab saying, “Look at her interviews — it’s all about Monica…She’s setting us back years. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” So she’s not supposed to talk about what happened to her, lest she be simply rehashing old history, but also can’t lay claim to the broader topics her experience touches upon?

Thankfully, it seems that much of the public is more than happy to welcome Lewinsky, notorious name and all, into the public square. Two headlines this year summarize what the younger generation seems to think of Lewinsky: according to The Wire, pre-Monica’s Vanity Fair debut, millennials “love” Lewinsky, while after her first person piece, they “don’t care” about her, claimed Slate. Both of those views, I believe, work in her favor; by not caring, millennials are showing they aren’t stuck in some time warp regarding sexual morality. Plenty of people clearly do care: she currently has over 78,000 Twitter followers and received a standing ovation for her Forbes “30 Under 30” speech on bullying. Most importantly, hasn’t allowed her critics to silence her. She may only have Tweeted 10 times since October 20th, but simply by participating in social media, and allowing both her supporters and critics to respond to her, she’s making a powerful statement.

Am I suggesting that Monica is off limits for criticism? Of course not, nor would I for anyone in the public eye. What I am saying is that the staggering level of public disgust with Lewinsky speaks volumes about how uncomfortable we are talking about sex and power, and just how comfortable we are judging, shaming and attempting to silence others.

We seem to expect any woman who makes a sexual misstep to simply disappear, as if she can never have anything else to say about the matter, while we rarely request the same of men (has anyone asked Bill Cosby if he’s changing his name?). I’m glad Lewinsky is finally opening up and hope that she can use her name to her advantage, for whatever purposes she chooses. When we live in a world where schoolgirls are sexually attacked, then bullied for being victims, we need someone to help “disturb the universe,” as Lewinsky promised to do in her Forbes speech. By letting her words take center stage, she already is.

Maybe one day we’ll read a story about her that isn’t all about the Clintons, but about knitting, or social media, or love, or business. I have a feeling her revival, if we can call it that, springs largely from women like me, close in age to Monica, maybe those who’ve (gasp) slept with married men, or been tarnished by sexual gossip, who see a part of themselves in her, and who are rooting for her to succeed. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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