Monica Lewinsky, whose affair with former President Bill Clinton remains iconic, is breaking her decade-long silence with a forthcoming interview in Vanity Fair. Although the full interview hasn’t been published yet, the excerpts released on Tuesday are already generating buzz — particularly because Lewinsky emphasizes that the affair was consensual.
“Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position,” Lewinsky explains. She goes on to say that the abuse she suffered actually stemmed from the “global humiliation” that was driven by the persistent coverage of the affair on the internet.
There were obviously huge power differentials in Lewinsky’s sexual relationship with Clinton. She was a 22-year-old intern; he was 30 years her senior, her boss, and the leader of the free world. It’s understandable that her insistence it was fully consensual has inspired some skepticism. But sexual assault prevention activists point out it’s not necessarily our responsibility to ascribe labels to other people’s experiences, including Lewinsky’s.
There are some instances, like a sexual relationship between an adult and a child, that automatically fit into our legal definitions of sexual assault because consent is impossible. As a society, we’ve agreed that a minor cannot consent to sex with an adult — particularly because that crime occurs within the context of the abuse of authority. Clearly, as evidenced by the sobering statistics on sexual harassment in the workplace, these abuses of power can continue into adulthood.
Questions about Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky can be useful entry points into those larger discussions about power, and the fact that parsing consent becomes much more difficult when power is unbalanced. But looking in from the outside and labeling Lewinsky as a victim erases her own voice in this situation, and isn’t necessarily the right way to spark a compassionate conversation about rape culture, according to activists in the field.
Sexual assault advocates take a “victim centered” approach to this issue, which ultimately focuses on following the lead of individual survivors. That means that if an individual chooses to tell someone else about their own experience with sexual violence, they’re supposed to be the ones controlling the conversation. “Anytime someone discloses to you, regardless of who you are, the best attribute you can have is to listen,” Sherelle Hessell-Gordon, the executive director of the DC Rape Crisis Center, noted.
As detailed in the survivor resource materials for the student-led sexual assault prevention group Know Your IX, it’s important to avoid assumptions about how people are supposed to react to being abused. “Remember that while sexual abuse is always inexcusable, it isn’t always traumatic. Sometimes sexual abuse is earth-shattering for a victim; sometimes it’s a disturbing but small bump in the road,” the group’s resource page notes. “Just as you shouldn’t minimize the assault, don’t catastrophize either.”
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) models this approach by working to use whatever language that a person who has experienced sexual violence may identify with. For instance, the organization’s materials acknowledge that some individuals may prefer to identify as a “victim,” while others feel strongly about being referred to as a “survivor.” Others don’t want to use the term “rape” or “assault” to describe their experiences, and NSVRC wants to accommodate that.
And Lewinsky doesn’t identify as someone who was assaulted at all. In this case, she’s recounting what she perceived to be a consensual affair, and it’s not anyone else’s place to tell her she’s wrong.
“When we use language that alienates, or does not reflect how people see themselves, we may do more harm than good,” Tracy Cox, NSVRC’s communications coordinator, told ThinkProgress via email. “Therefore, we, as an organization, support the field in using person-first language that honors the fact that people are not solely defined by the individual experiences they have had — they are people first who move through the world with intersecting identities and experiences.”
Hessell-Gordon noted she doesn’t necessarily think it’s her job to take a top-down approach, telling other people they don’t understand what rape is and insisting they should use different language to describe their experiences. Instead, she’s engaged in the broader work of supporting individuals coming from a wide range of backgrounds, and helping them recognize the ways that a persistent rape culture has influenced their attitudes about sexual relationships.
“In this movement, we have to begin to engage in conversations that are a lot more fluid; conversations that equip us to navigate what consent is, and how we identify it. It’s not ever cut and dry,” Hessell-Gordon noted. “Please don’t get me wrong — I am clear about what rape is, I am clear about how systems define rape, and I am clear about the nonconsensual nature of rape. But a broader conversation needs to happen… The whole world needs to be informed about what rape is.”
Lewinsky’s retelling of her experiences with Clinton could help Americans grapple with these questions about consent, and consider some of the barriers to navigating it in certain professional situations — especially since she acknowledges that a man in a position of power “took advantage” of her. But that’s a very different, more nuanced process than deciding Lewinsky must be a victim even though she’s insisting she doesn’t want to call herself one.