My family and I are watching the president explain on national television that sucking dick doesn’t mean having sex. The first talk about the birds and the bees I got was from Kenneth Starr. When Monica Lewinsky arrived in our cultural consciousness, I was twelve years old, and she was my coming of age story. When Clinton’s affair with Monica hit the news, it felt bizarrely personal, in the way the era’s monoculture allowed everything in the news to feel bizarrely personal. We became a whole nation experiencing puberty at exactly the moment I was actually experiencing puberty. The news, and the public reaction to it, made it seem that America had never heard of sex before; our national conversation imitated nothing so much as a teen finding out their parents have had sex.
The Lewinsky scandal wasn’t the kind of anatomy-textbook-and-shame Sex Ed they taught at school. Instead it was the real thing, something that scraped up against the unknown meat of life, in all its consequences and glamour and betrayals. It was a story that confessed how shame and want and joy tangled up together so closely that one couldn’t breathe without the other, demonstrating the way people were laid bare as unshelled mollusks by what their bodies wanted. Sex was a story about people, not about parts. Conversations about those hearings were the first conversations I ever had with anyone else about sex – for months the news was a permanent game of Never Have I Ever. Of course, it was only one story. But it was everywhere, coming out of every car radio in those dying glory days of broadcast media. The stories that are told again and again come to act as mandates and as roadmaps, even if they’re supposed to be cautionary tales or horror stories. I understood that this was What People Do and, wanting to count as people, I acted accordingly.
Twenty years later, this one affair still looms into the lives of so many women I know. Looking back on it now, it seems to underline the ways we eroticize white male failure, the idea that there is something sexy about men who fail to be good, who fail to compose morality and happiness out of all the abundant chances given to them. The corollary, perhaps, to the female “hot mess” is a man in his 40s or 50s having a mid-life crisis – the male hot mess has money and prestige and a wife he doesn’t want to fuck, and lounges in all his self-indulgent unhappiness like a huge unmade bed. A guy who choses a woman far too young for him who isn’t quite yet elegant or pulled together, who can’t possibly see the whole picture of what’s going on as clearly as he can, who won’t make him feel bad about himself. A man who seeks self-praising validation at the center of his experience of desire.
I think most often of Monica revealing that Bill had shared his insecurities about his body, and how that confession of male vulnerability was like a badge, a scrap of proof she could grab onto, more consequent than physical evidence of sexual intimacy, that what they shared had been real. Women are taught that to access a man’s feelings of failure is a triumph because it proves that he feels something for you. We gain nothing from these male confessions, handed over like wet coffee grounds dropped into a trash bag, but we are meant to to feel like this sloppiness is somehow material, something we can own. As though seeing the worst of someone means we are loved the best. This is an ugly model of relationship and it occurs between all kinds of people, not just between women and men sleeping together. But it is an ugliness that benefits in particular a certain type of man, and is therefore promoted again and again in the stories that center those men in our culture.
I won’t say that over the years afterwards my tendency to seek out unavailable men, to feel safe in underhanded scenarios fueled by male failure was because of Bill Clinton – it was because of no one but myself, and my own poor choices. But all the same, his ghost haunted those encounters, haunted the way that a man talking about his dead marriage made me feel uniquely adult when it should have repelled me, made me feel that I had arrived at the center of something that was real in the way things were supposed to be real. In those months in 1998, huddled around televisions and radios, I had learned that life was about delineating loyalties. Young women are convenient as sex objects, and they are convenient as scapegoats. It was an easy transition from one of these utilities to the other, from wanted to blamed, so easy that it began to seem as if one was co-significant with the other. None of this is new, and all of this would be just as rampant if Clinton had never so much as looked at a woman who wasn’t his wife. But for myself, and many other people around my age, the Lewinsky scandal was how we learned that this ugly story is one of the anchor points of civilization, a passion play in which one may be asked to choose one’s identifying character again and again.
It is no exaggeration to say that I would, without having to think about it, put my body between Monica Lewinsky and harm. Monica grew up, and is still around, and that in itself should be celebrated as some kind of Herculean feat. Our whole culture was focused for years on making sure this one young woman would never grow beyond a single set of mistakes. It was necessary to make sure she did not escape without adequate punishment and what was deemed adequate seemed to be bottomless, endless. She was made the name for a certain kind of woman and a certain kind of sin, the container for everything we felt about guilty sex, about infidelity, about female bodies and wanting what we weren’t supposed to want. Living as a concept is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, which is why celebrity is such a curse despite the wealth that sometimes comes with it. Monica was comprehensively dehumanized by a whole army of people older and wealthier, more powerful and more important, than her. She was a place to put our feelings about the powerful men who had done us wrong without having to reckon with knocking those men themselves off of their plinths. It is always more convenient to turn on someone who already does not matter, who is already powerless.
Maybe all this is why it is meaningful to me in an outsize way when I read about things like Monica and her good friend Alan Cumming making Thanksgiving dinner together. The smallest parts of life, the daily breathing joys, are hard-grabbed triumphs in the context of her story. The living concept of sexual guilt isn’t supposed to have a nice Thanksgiving, but here she is anyway, smiling in a photo, tweeting jokes with emojis in them, having friends, living a life that she has somehow managed to wrest out of the public consciousness, to make more hidden than visible, more her own than America’s.
Someone wrote a few years back in an essay about Monica that you should, when thinking of her, imagine the worst thing you had ever done, the dumbest sexual mistake you had ever made, the decisions you made about sex and love and yours and other people’s bodies at twenty-two and twenty-three, and then imagine that you had to live the rest of your life there, repeating endlessly, like a scratched record or a video stuck on one frame. Consequences are the closest thing we experience in reality to time travel; if we make big enough mistakes they echo down our lives. Our past actions are a leash, yanking us backward to who we once were, refusing the compassion of a new day or a fresh start. Monica is an outsize example of how the past can infect and rewrite the future, a person forced to live out her future in the story of a single past choice.
When I was about the same age Monica was at the time of the incident that froze her in public consciousness, I took the label “life ruiner” as a compliment. The fullest and truest proof of desirability was to be a problem, powerful and unignorable as a weather event that collapses homes and shuts down schools. Beauty was almost the only thing I thought of at twenty-three, and destruction was evidential proof of beauty, its ruinous juggernaut violence. Life had not yet hurt me enough - or at least I had not yet been capable enough of metabolizing its hurts -- for me to consider how the consequences of my actions rebounded on others whose pain was as real as my own. My idea that women in heterosexual relationships split into either the sexless, stern, boring mom who was cheated on or the exciting, squalid mistress who was pursued and who ruined lives, was, if only in small part, due to my first visions of sexual desire and its triangulations being the Lewinsky scandal. I had known my loyalties instinctively then and they had not changed; the dirty mistress was on the side of parties and of compassion, of vulnerability and of a good time, of humor and sex and the things that make us human.
I learned the horrible lessons one would expect to learn from these fractionally considered choices. Even though the consequences of my mistakes were self-inflicted, I experienced firsthand how these choices dehumanize their maker. Being the other woman, is, in the end, always dehumanizing. One becomes a cautionary tale, a scapegoat, an obstacle, a crucible for a relationship between two other people to overcome. One gives up personhood in the quest to be the most desired. Monica was the boldface marquee font version of this story. What happened to her was the same thing that happens to any of us who seek out being a desired secret, a life-ruiner, but everything internal was external. Everything that might have been private in the small stupidities, betrayals, and unkindness that someone like me enacted and experienced was enormously public, written on the sky. Her story feels like the most accurate version of my story in the way that it is sometimes necessary to use hyperbole to explain how big a thing felt from inside it, in the way that sometimes we all have to exaggerate in order to make ourselves visible. But that hyperbolic version of the story was really what happened to her, not an explicative figuration but merely the straightforward fact. Celebrities often function as gods once did to polytheistic cultures, serving as writ-large representations of single virtues and vices. Monica had been singled out to stand as the deity of the other woman.
This way celebrities act as small gods also fuels the fantasy many of us have about a particular celebrity whom we truly believe would be our best friend if only we met them under the right circumstances. We have lived the same story they have, if on the small stage rather than on the large one, and if we were to meet them they would know we were kin. Some unpersuadable part of me believes and will always believe that I could sit down with Monica, bound by the same category of experience, the same truths intelligible only in the doing and having done, and connect immediately, I was also, I was also I was also.
I won’t ever know Monica Lewinsky. These attachments to celebrity are in the end only ways to understand ourselves, symbols by which to make our experiences legible. Even if I did, I imagine the ultimately banal hard truths of having been the other woman and having made certain mistakes in one’s early twenties are the last thing she would want to discuss. She came out of the storm and so did I, and because of this I will always want to protect her in the same way I want to protect my own younger self. I want to give both of them all the tenderness and caution they were never permitted. Monica’s graceful second act is a hopeful story, one that demonstrates the binaries splitting women into sin and virtue to be wrong, but more than that one that says that life continues into the future and we can live beyond our mistakes. None of us stay young and to live past being young is not a loss but a mercy. Monica is a role model for a certain type of girl who wasn’t supposed to be allowed to have role models. She has lived up into a world that refused her, defiantly gracious, building herself the future she wasn’t supposed to have.