I remember poring over the Starr Report in 1998. A special excerpt was published in the Washington Post and as a eighth grader at the time it served as the sex-ed class my school didn’t provide.
But what I most remember the most was the vitriol directed toward Monica Lewinsky, less for her actions than her actual being. Everyone from late-night comedians to leading feminists were vicious in their attacks against her. She was fat. She was ugly. She was Jewish. She wasn’t the type of girl you would risk having an affair with. As a Jewish girl concerned about my appearance and my weight, seeing someone who looked like me be so denigrated shaped the way I saw myself and how I thought the world saw me. (It also gave me a permanent fear of straightening my hair.)
Then like the rest of the world I moved on. Monica Lewinsky would pop up in the news once in a while as an aspiring handbag designer or reality show host, and more recently as a name check in popular rap songs.
However, in the past year, Lewinsky has been on somewhat of a “take back my narrative” tour. In June, she published an essay in Vanity Fair about the effects of the scandal on her life and has become a vocal advocate for anti-bullying awareness.
This past Thursday, Lewinsky gave a TED talk in Vancouver decrying what she calls the current “culture of humiliation” in a world “where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.” Her emotional speech, a mix of personal narrative and social activism, quickly went viral and garnered praise from her former detractors.
Lewinsky began by speaking of the “mistake” she made that would come to define her.
At the age of 22, I fell in love with my boss, and at the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences. Can I see a show of hands of anyone here who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22? Yep. That’s what I thought.”
Once the scandal broke, Lewinsky says she became “patient zero” of online humiliation.
I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo and, of course, ‘that woman.’ I was known by many, but actually known by few. I get it. It was easy to forget ‘that woman’ was dimensional and had a soul.
It was the death of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University who committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate recorded him having sex with another man, that spurred Lewinsky back into the spotlight. When she heard the story she recalled the time in her life when she feared, “I would be humiliated to death, literally.”
For some, Lewinsky will always be a punch line but it’s hard not to see her as anything but a survivor. For those facing similar public embarrassment her message is clear: “Anyone who is suffering from shame and public humiliation needs to know one thing: you can survive it. I know it’s hard. It may not be painless, quick or easy, but you can insist on a different ending to your story.”