‘I’m grateful that I can take my experiences from 20 years ago and help other people’
Her affair with Bill Clinton nearly brought down the presidency but Monica Lewinsky refuses to be a victim. She reveals how she survived, and why she’s taking on the bullies.
At the end of our interview, Monica Lewinsky hugs me and thanks me for acting “like a human being” towards her. Talking to the media, she confesses, is still “hard” — a scar from being treated like a carcass that the piranhas all fed on when her affair with Bill Clinton was exposed two decades ago.
She was only 22 and a White House intern when she met the 49-year-old president, and after he lied about their relationship (the famous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”), Clinton was impeached, though later acquitted. It was Lewinsky’s name that was attached to the scandal. She ended up the butt of countless jokes, was effectively “slut-shamed” and found no one would employ her.
What amazes me about the 44-year-old is that her experiences have turned her neither bitter nor brittle. They have made her fret about how she appears, though — and not without cause. “In 1999, in one of my first interviews, a woman wrote: ‘Lewinsky lumbers into the room like an elephant’,” she tells me. “I thought: ‘Oh, okay, so it’s not only about my words — it’s about how I walk’.”
She is not entirely averse to talking about the past, but wants to focus on the present. Three years ago she re-entered the public arena with a mission: to tackle bullying, both on and offline. Her focus is on the victims “because that’s what I feel most connected to”.
Bullying, she adds, reflects “a culture that we’ve been spiralling down towards for a long time: one that commoditises shame and humiliation. That’s at the heart of bullying behaviour.”
We are chatting in the Club at the Hotel Cafe Royal as guests at the table behind us pretend they haven’t noticed who she is. Lewinsky has a strange kind of fame: she says she gets recognised by “seven-year-olds to 97-year-olds” yet not everyone is sure why they know her. “Some of the younger kids know me because of rap songs,” she says, somehow laughing at this (rapper G-Eazy used her name as a song title, and Kanye and Eminem both mention her in lyrics). Now children also know her from her TED talk, The Price of Shame, which is shown in schools and has been watched seven million times on YouTube.
Lewinsky describes herself as the “patient zero” for “going from being a private person to a globally known, publicly humiliated, losing-my-digital-reputation (person)”. This meant “there was no handbook of ‘what did so-and-so do? How did they protect themselves?’” for her to follow. How then did she find the strength to deal with it?
“We are all so much more resilient than we could ever imagine. I was blessed with a resilient core, with an incredibly supportive family and — as I was able to bring friends back into the fold — friends and family who continued to reflect back to me my true self.”
She has described public shaming as “a bloodsport”. Is there some base human instinct at play here, one that once would have compelled us to throw rubbish at prisoners in the stocks, or something new?
“I don’t know. Certainly, some of our social media arenas have become online coliseums. When we wrap fear around difference, that’s what creates the chasm between (people). We’re living at a time when we see the best of people and the worst of people.”
As such, she thinks it is critical to imbue “digital resilience” in the young. “Resilience is a muscle you can build,” she argues. “It’s almost like wearing a seatbelt — it’s not because you know you’ll get into an accident now, but because there’s a high likelihood you could one day. More and more people will find themselves publicly shamed.”
The gaming world worries her as well as social media. “It has desensitised people. You die online, and there you are again — you refresh. That contributes to the dehumanising among younger people.”
Since 2014 Lewinsky has worked with the Diana Award’s anti-bullying campaign, appearing on Monday with other famous names at Alexandra Palace to talk to teenagers. She is also the mastermind behind a cyber-bullying ad where actors hurl comments that have been posted online at other actors — “It was to shine a light on the disparity between how we behave online and offline.”
Are online abusers failing to see their victims as people? She nods. “The psychologist John Suler calls it the ‘online disinhibition effect’. Because of the anonymity and the distancing effect of the screen, we lose the humanity.”
In the ad, passers-by waded in to protect the victims. Lewinsky applauds them for not bullying the bully back. “In my own behaviour, when I’m being snarky, usually the (reason) is some insecurity. Bullying the bully doesn’t move the conversation forward. We should look at why someone wants to hurt and wield power over someone else.”
She emphasises that we are not powerless to tackle these problems. Her campaign, Click With Compassion, encourages people to “think about how you use your click to shift the algorithm away from clickbait pieces that contribute to a culture that harasses or sexualises women”. In other words, if we all stopped clicking on cruel celebrity stories, they wouldn’t be money-spinners.
Her second initiative — #bestrong emojis — were created so that those witnessing cyber-bullying can intervene either privately or publicly, offering a virtual hug or kind words. “Our brain processes images faster than text so this is the quickest way to help someone feel less alone.”
Lewinsky knows first-hand the importance of getting support. “Back in 1998 I liked to get the mail — hearing from strangers and getting an outpouring of compassion made a significant difference in my life. It sounds pathetic but it was sometimes the highlight of my day. Small gestures of compassion can make the world of difference.”
Lewinsky feels social media’s “culture of humiliation” will also damage public discourse. “We will eventually — whether we realise it or not — start censoring ourselves. We’ll think about how we are expressing our opinions through the lens of ‘Will I be lambasted?’ That’s a very dangerous place for us to go as a society.”
When Lewinsky was being mauled, even feminists joined in. In a New York Observer article, Erica Jong accused Lewinsky of having “third-stage gum disease” and Nancy Friday said when the scandal was over “she can rent out her mouth”.
“Women are not immune to misogyny,” Lewinsky notes. “But we are living in a time of a pendulum swing (in attitudes to gender politics). With some of these issues between the genders, there are also intra-group issues.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she now distances herself from feminism. “When we look at the definition — feminism is about equality for women — most people can get on board. But where it becomes murky is that it’s not just about that. It’s nuanced. For me it’s about also, within myself, coming to terms with ‘How do I not want to be a hypocrite?’ Could I call myself a feminist with a capital F if I still hold certain beliefs?” — she checks herself — “beliefs that I’m not going to talk about here.”
However, she now feels young women are “redefining feminism” and is proud that many teenage girls told her that they had read her famous 2014 Vanity Fair article — titled Shame and Survival — in their feminist groups.
“It’s incredibly moving for me and I’m grateful that I am somehow able to take my experiences from almost 20 years ago and find a way to help other people.”
Lewinsky tweeted #metoo. What does she make of the movement? “Any time people speak the truth of their experiences it gives an opportunity for them to be seen as their true selves. That should hopefully always be better for our society.”
I ask if she thinks social media means powerful men are less able to silence women. She pauses, contemplatively. “I think there are a lot of positive things about social media. That certainly could be considered one of the positive shifts.”
Are we moving away from victim-blaming? “Maybe. One can only hope that’s where we’re going (but) these are systemic changes that can take a while to see, so who knows?”
If a similar scandal to the one that bears her name played out now, Lewinsky feels it would be different. For one, it wouldn’t last so long: “Our attention span has shortened.” Because the internet gives us lots of these stories? “Yes, so we’ve become inured to it.”
She also feels that social media could mean a woman in her position wouldn’t feel so alone. “Aspects of social media might make it worse but it also provides a megaphone for people who aren’t well known. I meet people who expressed some kind of a silent support for me and unless they sent a letter, there was no way of knowing that.”
She stops, thinking this through: “But I really hope that what happened to me does not happen to anyone again.”