“Thanks to the Drudge Report, I was possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet,” Monica Lewinsky writes in Vanity Fair. And though her affair with Bill Clinton may have kicked off our modern era of sex scandal — and set the standard for the boom-bust cycles of denial and apology, sexist fascination, and pseudo-celebrity — a lot has changed since 1998. A presidential candidate made a sex tape. Two U.S. Congressmen resigned over flirtations with women they never even met. Slut-shaming entered the lexicon, but so did cyberbullying, sexting, and reality star. Sixteen years after Interngate, technology has managed a neat trick: It’s now possible to have a sex scandal that’s simultaneously more chaste in its execution and far sleazier in its aftermath. Anthony Weiner never got laid, but the woman who sank his mayoral campaign nevertheless made and marketed a Weiner-themed porno.
By comparison, the woman who had “oral-anal contact” in the Oval Office is the portrait of ladylike restraint. Monica also enjoyed a brief period of celebrity, of course (remember when she hosted a dating show?), but as America became increasingly attention-obsessed and media-optimized, she fell into an adult life “so silent … that the buzz in some circles has been that the Clintons must have paid me off; why else would I have refrained from speaking out?”
Today whore is a pejorative that has more to do with profiteering than promiscuity; the mainstream is learning, slowly, to be sex-positive, but there is no corollary term for empathizing with unabashed attention-seekers. And so Monica’s claim that she “turned down offers that would have earned me more than $10 million” becomes her redemption, a form of abstinence she uses now to prove her virtue. But she decries this double standard, too: “Not lying low exposed me to criticism for trying to ‘capitalize’ on my ‘notoriety.’ Apparently, others talking about me is O.K.; me speaking out for myself is not.”
Capitalizing on notoriety is easier than ever. During Monica’s decade of silence, it actually became a viable career: In the aftermath of Tiger Woods’s sex scandal, porn star Gina Rodriguez founded a PR company dedicated to monetizing what she called “mistresses,” a catch-all term connoting not sexual contact but mere sexual notoriety. For clients ranging from Weiner’s sexters to Woods’s prostitutes to the adultery partners of Mel Gibson and Jesse James, Rodriguez has organized “mistress” nights at strip clubs, “mistress” photo opportunities, and dating-website endorsements. Six months after she went public as the recipient of Carlos Danger’s text messages, Rodriguez client Sydney Leathers invited a photographer to document a series of cosmetic-surgery procedures culminating in labia reduction. She had wanted to sell the cut-off remnants of her labia, too, but U.S. laws about “medical waste” thwarted her.
Suddenly, Monica’s foray into designing tote bags seems quaint.
Some of Monica’s relative classiness may, in fact, be a matter of class. When employment was hard to come by, Lewinsky writes that she fell back on “loans from friends and family.” She was, after all, the kind of twentysomething who worked at the White House, a distinction nobody in Gina Rodriguez’s “mistress” club can boast. (Rodriguez does, however, represent White House party-crasher Michaele Salahi.) But who knows how things might have been different if her scandal had unfolded in the age of the selfie. Today, the feedback loop for sexual schadenfreude has been paired with a relentless egging-on. A decade ago, Monica’s turn at TV stardom had her playing the “stout matron” of a family-friendly dating show; today, notorious women are more likely to play the warbling reality star sobbing through false eyelashes. Would she have filmed ads for Jenny Craig, or something more tawdry?
Even without modern opportunities for post-scandal livelihood, Lewinsky has been branded by the scandal that made her famous. She theorizes that some of her problem arose from the scandal taking place before she’d had a chance to develop her adult identity:
Unlike the other parties involved, I was so young that I had no established identity to which I could return. I didn’t “let this define” me — I simply hadn’t had the life experience to establish my own identity in 1998. If you haven’t figured out who you are, it’s hard not to accept the horrible image of you created by others. (Thus, my compassion for young people who find themselves shamed on the Web.) Despite much self-searching and therapy and exploring of different paths, I remained “stuck” for far too many years.
Now 40, Lewinsky is no longer a naïf playing at stardom. She’s one of the first adults to have gone through the modern gauntlet of mass sexual scrutiny. The impetus for her essay, she says, is a desire to aid the victims of cyberbullying and to help dismantle America’s “culture of humiliation.” I believe she is genuine in that desire (in the depths of her misery, Lewinsky says she contemplated suicide), but I also can’t help but marvel at what may be That Woman’s savviest self-branding decision yet: In the age of Sydney Leathers, she is aligning herself with Tyler Clementi. Monica’s legacy will be about sexual politics, not celebrity.
“So far, That Woman has never been able to escape the shadow of that first depiction,” Lewinsky writes. “I was the Unstable Stalker (a phrase disseminated by the Clinton White House), the Dimwit Floozy, the Poor Innocent who didn’t know any better.” Initial reactions to Lewinsky’s appearance in Vanity Fair played into that trope: Yesterday, Monica’s media nemesis Maureen Dowd (“Moremean Dowdy, as I used to call her”) described the ex-intern as “striking yet another come-hither pose.” If sex is on sale here, I don’t see it. If anything, Mark Seliger’s casually glamorous photos are remarkable for their chastity. When Seliger photographed Rielle Hunter for GQ, the adulteress posed in bed with her pants off. In Vanity Fair, Monica’s virginal white dress looks like something Audrey Hepburn would wear.
“The last time I encountered Monica was at the Bombay Club, a restaurant nestled between my office and the White House,” Dowd reflects. “After requesting that the piano player play ‘Send in the Clowns,’ she leaned in with me, demanding to know why I wrote such “scathing” pieces about her.” Today, Monica might choose a more dignified song. (“Survivor”? “Roar”? Or “Cathy’s Clown” by the Everly Brothers: “When you see me shed a tear and you know that it's sincere / Don’t you think it's kinda sad that you're treating me so bad?”) But she’s leaning in again, and to a tune of her own choosing.
Most Viewed Stories
It’s Harder to Be Thin Than It Was in the ’80s
Why Do I Jerk Awake Right As I’m Falling Asleep?
From Up Close, Raf Simons’s Vision for Dior Is Clear
The World’s Easiest Way to Highlight Your Face
A Pregnant Supermodel Explains What She Eats
Meet the Prom Queen of Instagram
Sleater-Kinney on Riot Grrl, Reuniting, and Portlandia
Michelle Obama: No Boy Is Cute Enough to Keep You From Getting an Education
Céline’s Woman-Friendly Triumph
Selfie Sorority Uses Media Frenzy for Good Cause
From Our Partners
The Day I Told The Ugly Truth About My Marriage
5 Must-Have Products for Your Makeup Bag
The Art of Loving and Losing Female Friends
Here's What To Buy From J.Crew's HUGE 75-Percent-Off Sale!
powered by PubExchange
The Cut’s Latest Love and War FeaturesSigourney Weaver on Talking to Ronald Reagan About Abortion Rights
He didn’t want to chat.8 Actually Good Things That Happened This Week
Baby sea turtles wearing bathing suits and a necklace for your pizza.Selfie Sorority Uses Media Frenzy for Good Cause
Take that, sportscasters.A Comprehensive Taxonomy of Men With Long Hair
And why we like them anyway.Teens Are Dying From Train-Track Photo Shoots
The popular photo destination is actually super-dangerous.‘Truly Ugly Guy With Glasses’ Is Europe’s Most Virile Man
Ed Houben has fathered 106 children — that he knows of.The Internet of Parents Is Miserable and I Love It
Why it's so hard to look away.Did the ‘Maxipad Bandit’ Really Think He’d Escape?
Not so fast, mister.Woman Driven From Her Home by Death Threats After Starting Pro-Choice Hashtag
The hashtag drew intense scorn from anti-abortion activists.Ice-Cold Teens Don’t Hesitate to Block Their Exes
"I’m just like this is irrelevant now.”
Come on, man.Are Newsletters the Internet’s New Safe Space for Women?
Whether you're Lena Dunham or an emerging writer, the format has an appealing intimacy.The Bennifer Years Affected Matt Damon More Than Anyone Else
It's just really hard when your buddy breaks up with J.Lo, you know?Someone Used Gasoline to Set a Los Angeles–Area Planned Parenthood on Fire
Police believe gasoline was used as an accelerant to burn down the Thousand Oaks facility.Michelle Obama: No Boy Is Cute Enough to Keep You From Getting an Education
"Compete with the boys. Beat the boys."Stop Time-Traveling to Such Lame Eras, Losers
You have a choice, people.New ‘Yelp for People’ Will Let You Rate Everyone You Know
Kind of like Lulu, or Hot or Not, or ...Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Glad She Was Trained in the ’60s
She's glad she was trained in the Mad Men era.Lena Dunham Apologizes for Joking About Abuse
"When I heard my own quote I was like, 'Jesus, Lena, no.'"Desperate Republicans Attack Planned Parenthood Chief’s Salary
"The disrespect, the misogyny rampant here today tells us what is really going on."