Sexism, shaming, and women who sleep with powerful men

There’s a great article up at The Nation on ‘The Lewinsky Double Standard’. It discusses how differently we view men who have sex with much younger, less powerful women and women who have sex with older, more powerful men. Admitting an affair with an older, powerful man can, for many women, have severe consequences:

Clinton’s reputation has largely recovered from the affair that sparked his impeachment trial; Lewinsky’s never did. She got a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, hoping to do communications for a charity, but has been unable to get a full-time job. “Because of what potential employers so tactfully referred to as my ‘history,’ I was never ‘quite right’ for the position,” she writes, noting that the only offers she’s gotten have been those that would market her notoriety. She’s watched her friends marry and have children, their lives moving forward while hers has not. “With every man I date…I go through some degree of 1998 whiplash,” she writes. Imagine, at 40, being defined by a blowjob you gave at 22. Lewinsky is scarcely exaggerating when she compares herself to Hester Prynne. Her life has been deformed by slut-shaming, a phrase that had not yet been coined when she was catapulted into infamy.

And, perhaps discouragingly, this is sometimes an area in which feminists have contributed to the harm:

During the scandal, the primary feminist argument was about sexual harassment, about whether or not the affair was consensual. In their zeal to argue that the dalliance wasn’t exploitative—and thus that Clinton hadn’t committed a public transgression—some feminists went so far as to argue that Clinton was Lewinsky’s victim. “Here’s a cute, sexy, young president, he’s known to have had a lot of sexual affairs,” said Erica Jong during an all-female discussion of the scandal that The New York Observer convened at Le Bernardin. “He might stimulate the fantasies of all the young women who work in the office. And particularly the ones who are a bit father-obsessed and obsessed with older men and feel neglected. So, it’s possible that Clinton has had many more such attacks than we even think.” Attacks! As if the poor president only capitulated under the intern’s siege. There was little room, back then, to see Lewinsky as both an active agent in the affair and a person whose dignity and privacy deserved protection.

6 thoughts on “Sexism, shaming, and women who sleep with powerful men

  1. THIS IS OF MAJOR IMPORTANCE……..THANKS FOR BRINGING IT UP THIS WAY…………….and i now appreciate the importance of lewinsky’s reminding us, even today, that for her, as for all women, this threat to all women is as alive as it ever was……….

  2. Thinking about that era (I’m just three years older than Lewinsky) versus this one just makes me SO GLAD FOR THE INTERNET. I mean for all the terrible swarming of internet feminist voices there are… internet feminist voices. Lewinsky got discussed primarily by the army of male media pundits and then maybe the one or two women who got to write and talk (Nora Ephron was so, so great on what it was like back in the day to compete for that *one* slot at any major outlet). Like, who was there even? Katha Pollitt and Ellen Willis and Molly Ivins… Was Patricia Williams a columnist then? Well, I’m not going to remember everyone but the point is you can’t even begin to count the public feminists with a platform today. And it makes such a huge effing difference to the public conversation. Audible voices would have somebody like Lewinsky’s back today, not that there wouldn’t still be a chorus of media dudes lamenting her “predation” plus the occasional Erica Jong helpfully chipping in on that side but … whew. Things are actually better in important ways.

  3. It’s important that there is an important point in the piece. On the other hand, it’s also important not to demonize our feminist predecessors. There were plenty of feminists– vocal, famous feminists– who (rightly, imho) thought B. Clinton pretty much of a sexist asshole on the personal front, where his treatment of Lewinsky was an important piece of evidence for that verdict, even as we voted for him. Patricia Ireland (then President of N.O.W.), for instance, when queried in/by the press as to why so many women voted for Clinton a second time, responded:
    “Women voters elected Clinton, and the majority of women still approve of his performance in office […] Clinton’s administration worked hard and successfully on the Violence Against Women Act, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the earned income tax credit, women’s health and other issues that affect us and our families; he has appointed more women and women’s rights supporters to positions of power than ever before. Still, he seems to be a man who divides women into two unfortunate traditional categories: women he must treat with respect like Janet Reno, Madeleine Albright and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and those he can use and toss aside like tissue paper.”
    [I love that quote so much, on multiple grounds, that I’ve actually quoted it in publication]

  4. I am reading J. Harvey’s “Civilized Oppression” right now and this seems to be a sad example of how this kind of oppression works. There is an original harm (the sexual harrassment/abuse), which is in itself already enabled by unequal power (the President vs. an intern…). This harm is either not seen or down-played, including victim-blaming, which harms the victim even more. And speaking out haunts her – giving us all the message: “Don’t speak up when you get harmed (at least not when you’re a woman/part of an oppressed group)!”

    And I am not sure if things are really better… After all, Lewinsky is still looking for a job… Maybe I’ll see some improvement if she got one now that the Nation brought this to everyone’s attention… (Well, at least those willing to read it…)

  5. Based on my work experience, I’ve noticed that women don’t much like other women who sleep with the boss. That’s separate from the brouhaha there was over this specific woman and that particular man, and all the puritanical b*shit in the media about it at the time and now. It can’t have been easy to take her side at the time.

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