Sorry this is late. Snow days screwed with my sense of time, which is pretty tenuous to begin with.
It’s January 21, 1998, and the Washington Post just broke a story that will devour the airwaves for months on end: in 1995-7, President Bill Clinton had an affair with a then-22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. This is going to be a strange year: journalists, news anchors, and comedians will spend much of it discussing blowjobs, semen stains, and alluded-to but ultimately unspecified acts involving a cigar, while Congress launches an investigation into same.
Rewind a little: in the 1994 midterm election, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress, which they retained throughout the Clinton administration. The resulting tensions combined with the rise of right-wing talk radio and the burgeoning Internet (the right-wing gossip site The Drudge Report had actually broken the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair three days before the Post) to create an environment of high partisanship, which is to say more or less the political environment we still have.
A few months earlier, in May 1994, a woman named Paula Jones filed a lawsuit alleging that, in 1991, then-Governor Clinton had exposed himself to her and propositioned her for sex. As Jones was an Arkansas state employee, Clinton was her boss, making this a case of workplace sexual harassment. The resulting legal battle went to the Supreme Court, who ruled that yes, a sitting President can be sued for conduct that occurred before he took office, and ultimately resulted in a settlement in November 1998.
In the course of that lawsuit, Jones’ lawyers sought to establish that Clinton’s behavior toward Jones was part of a pattern of abusing authority and seeking sexual contact with employees (which it very likely was), and therefore subpoenaed women with whom Clinton was suspected of having affairs; in the course of his testimony, Clinton denied having had sex with Monica Lewinsky specifically.
Meanwhile, Congress had hired independent counsel Ken Starr to investigate the Clintons for alleged criminal involvement in a real estate deal gone bad. (Repeatedly. No matter how many times the investigation turned up no wrongdoing on the Clintons’ part. See the climate of rising partisanship mentioned above.) Starr had received permission to expand his investigation into other allegations against the Clintons, and so he was the one who received the recordings made of conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, who had made the recordings on advice of a literary agent, and appears to have gotten close to Lewinsky specifically to get dirt for her own enrichment.
Clinton was impeached late in 1998 on charges of perjury. Interestingly, charges of abuse of power were mooted in the House, but ultimately did not get enough votes to be included in the impeachment proceedings. He was acquitted the following February.
Very few people come out of this looking good. Tripp appears to have been an archetypal snake in the grass. Clinton was pretty clearly a sexual predator, and he very obviously lied under oath, but after a year of wasting time and taxpayer money, not to mention destroying Lewinsky’s life, Congress still ultimately didn’t do anything about it. Not that they ever actually cared about either sexual predation or lies, given several prominent Republican Congresspeople caught in both; Congress was pretty obviously acting out of pure partisan spite and an early prominent example of what would become the endemic right-wing inability to conceive of the legitimacy of any power other than their own.
Lewinsky is really the only person who did no significant wrong in all this. She did submit a false affidavit in the Jones lawsuit, denying the affair with Clinton, but she was young, in her first job after college, and under pressure to protect her boss, who was incidentally the most powerful man on Earth. And it was Clinton, not Lewinsky, who abused his status and power to take advantage of a much younger and more vulnerable woman; Clinton who broke his promises of fidelity to his wife; Clinton whose history of sexual predation gave rise to the investigation in the first place. So, of course, it was Lewinsky who was tainted for life; in two heartbreaking articles for Vanity Fair penned years later, she discusses the humiliation she experienced, the depression and suicidal ideation that followed, and the PTSD that she still struggles with to this day. She also discusses the way it has followed her ever since, interfering with job prospects, isolating her socially and especially romantically.
We have seen this story before, more than once. It is the story Batman told about Harley Quinn in the Mad Love comic, claiming that she took advantage of her professors by sleeping with them, despite the power dynamics involved virtually guaranteeing any advantage-taking had to happen in the opposite direction. It’s even closer to the story Akio pushes on Utena, blaming her for his decision to cheat on his fiancee:
Akio: You didn’t reject me, even though I have a fiancee. That’s a sin, isn’t it?
Utena: This isn’t fair..!
Akio: Unfair? Isn’t turning away from the truth and blaming others even more unfair? Isn’t it unfair to pretend only you are noble and in the right?
Of course the power differential between a 22-year-old White House intern and the President of the United States is not as extreme as the differential between a 14-year-old girl and the Acting Chairman of her school, who is also the ruler of her home and the home of everyone she knows, as well as the demiurge of her world. The point nonetheless remains: the wrongdoing is clearly on the part of the powerful older man, but he deflects it onto the young woman.
I have, elsewhere, described that scene from Utena as gaslighting, and that is exactly what happened to Lewinsky. The President, Congress, the Starr investigation, and the media all collaborated to humiliate a young woman, to persuade her that she had done wrong, that she was somehow dirtied or tarnished by acts which, insofar as they involved any wrongdoing, did so only on the part of someone else. They conspired to convince her that, even though she was the clearest victim in the scandal, nonetheless she was the one to be punished.
This is just one instance of a pattern repeated again and again: when the abuser is powerful and privileged and the victim is not, it is the victim who is punished. To a lesser degree, the other person obviously a victim in all this, Hillary Clinton, was punished as well, or at least her “inability to keep her man” came up in the quarter-century-plus of relentless right-wing attacks against her character that began pretty much the instant she arrived on the national scene. (But she’s also on the record blaming Lewinsky rather than Bill, so fuck her. But as a woman in politics she is constantly balancing on a knife edge that requires some conformity to popular narratives, but… and around and around we go.)
The use of “gaslighting” to describe social processes like this is somewhat controversial. Strictly speaking, gaslighting is a process of undermining a victim’s sense of reality, getting them to question things they know are true and doubt their own perceptions, thus increasing their dependency on the abuser. But Lewinsky herself describes her experience as gaslighting, and it is a key part of how the culture of abuse controls its victims: by teaching us to accept the harsh and unjust judgment of society over our own senses of self-worth and of right and wrong, our own values.
The techniques of interpersonal abuse, carried out on a culture-wide scale. Lewinsky is far from the last woman to have experienced such; we will be seeing this phenomenon again.
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