Salacious siren and frigid wife – it's a lazy blame game
The story of Monica and Hillary highlights how women are always depicted in sex scandals, writes Carol Hunt
Timing, as they say, in love, war and politics, is everything. And what better time for Monica Lewinsky to pen a 4,000-word essay for Vanity Fair magazine than when Hillary gears up for a shot at the White House. Not that – as she says in her piece –Monica wishes the Clintons any ill will. But just because recently, she's been "thinking a lot about Hillary" and about "the fact that we might finally have a woman in the White House". I bet she's not the only one. All over America, Republicans are frantically trying to figure out how they can use "Cigar-gate" to best humiliate Hillary Clinton and scupper her chances for the Democratic nomination.
Because, as so often happens in cases where men behave badly, it's the women involved who take the punishment. They are the ones who are scrutinised and found at fault; for wearing too much or not enough make-up; for being too uptight or too sexually available; caring too much or too little; being helplessly naive or dangerously calculating.
In the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, both women became cartoons of pathetic, powerless femininity – lampooned in bars, clubs and at dinner tables world-wide. If Lewinsky was a slut, then Hillary must be frigid. We all colluded. I doubt if there's a person on this planet over the age of 20 who hasn't at some stage made a joke about cigars, deep throat, Lewinsky's blue dress or Hillary Clinton's sexual preferences. (Just last week radio host Glen Beck said, "Hillary Clinton will be having lesbian sex in the White House [if she is elected].")
Meanwhile, the only person concerned who actually committed adultery and abused his position of power went back to being feted worldwide, as the media not only forgave him but lauded him for his daring sex appeal. What red-blooded man – the narrative went – be he plumber or president, would ever refuse oral sex from an available young woman?
Or, as Tina Brown wrote, "Forget the dog-in-the-manger, down in the mouth neo-Puritanism of the op-ed tumbrel drivers and see him instead as his guests do; a man in a dinner jacket with more heat than any star in the room."
What was really awful about the whole affair, though – what I found particularly sad – was that it wasn't just Republican, conservative men or people out to make political capital out of the affair, who pointed, snickered and blamed. Many feminists, who were fans of Bill and his liberal policies, failed to point up the manner in which he had exploited his position to take advantage of a young intern. (Not just in the Lewinsky case – where, though Monica admits "her boss took advantage of her" it, was "consensual" – but in the other cases of sexual misbehaviour against Clinton when it was not.)
Instead, they fell for the age-old chestnut of woman as seductress because it suited them – Monica as Eve with her big juicy apple. "If anything it sounds like she put the moves on him," said Susan Faludi, author of feminist bible Backlash, blithely ignoring the power dynamics of the relationship. Erica Jong said: "My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease". And Betty Frieden said that "enemies are attempting to bring him down through allegations about some dalliance with an intern ... whether it's a fantasy, a set-up or true, I simply don't care".
Conversely, Hillary was criticised for "standing by her man" and for not sticking up for fellow female Lewinsky (why should she be expected to defend a women who had oral sex with her husband?). Both women were used as pawns in a political power game. Both have continued to suffer ever since.
Hillary, in that her well-deserved achievements in office are constantly questioned. As MSNBC host Chris Matthews reminded people a few years ago, "Let's not forget ... the reason she's a US senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a frontrunner is her husband messed around. That's how she got to be a senator for New York. She didn't win there on merit."
And Lewinsky, who has found it impossible to lead a normal life when the legacy of being "America's premier blow-job queen" still follows her everywhere. In her essay she paints a picture of a life where she is repeatedly hounded by paparazzi, unable to find decent employment (one prospective employer wanted a letter of indemnification from the Clintons). She became, as she put it, "a social canvas on which anybody could project their confusion about women, sex, infidelity, politics and body issues".
So why bring it all up again? Why purposely place herself back in the spotlight? The pre-publicity from Vanity Fair insisted that Lewinsky was "breaking her silence" on this issue – not exactly true when one remembers her chat with Barbara Waters, and numerous magazine interviews. Lewinsky argues that she was motivated to write this piece in order to highlight the culture of public bullying, which eventually led to the death (by suicide) of Tyler Clementi after he was videotaped kissing another man.
Though she makes it clear that her own experience was a "consequence of her own poor choices", she writes: "I wish I could have had a chance to have spoken to Tyler about how my love life, my sex life, my most private moments, my most sensitive secrets have been broadcast around the globe. I wished I had been able to say to him that I knew a little of how it might have felt for him to be exposed before the world."
This is fair enough. If anyone has the authority to write about being publicly humiliated,it is Monica Lewinsky, and we can only laud her goal of getting "involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment".
But the story of Monica and Hillary is also important in that it highlights how women are always depicted in sexual scandals: the salacious siren versus the frigid wife – both at fault, both deserving of censure; repeatedly pitted against each other, used for titillation and amusement and lazy blame games. We all collude in it. Meanwhile the boss accused of sexual misbehaviour in the workplace – not once but repeatedly – struts off smiling; admired, feted and forgiven.