Monica Lewinsky: ‘The shame sticks to you like tar’
Nearly 20 years ago, Monica Lewinsky found herself at the heart of a political storm. Now she’s turned that dark time into a force for good
Lewinsky was once among the 20th century’s most humiliated people, ridiculed across the world. Now she’s a respected and perceptive anti-bullying advocate. She gives talks at Facebook, and at business conferences, on how to make the internet more compassionate.
Either way, misogyny is still thriving. When the Guardian began researching the online harassment of its own writers, they discovered something bleak: of the 10 contributors who receive the most abuse in the comment threads, eight are women – five white, three non-white – and the other two are black men. Overall, women Guardian writers get more abuse than men, regardless of what they write about, but especially when they write about rape and feminism. I noticed something similar during my two years interviewing publicly shamed people. When a man is shamed, it’s usually, “I’m going to get you fired.” When a woman is shamed it’s, “I’m going to rape you and get you fired.”
With statistics like these, it’s no surprise that many consider this an ideological issue – that the focus should be on combatting the misogynistic, racist abuse committed by men. But Lewinsky doesn’t see it that way. “A lot of vicious things that happen online to women and minorities do happen at the hands of men,” she says, “but they also happen at the hands of women. Women are not immune to misogyny.”
“That happened to you,” I say. “With people like Nancy Friday. You found yourself being attacked by ideologues.”
“Yes,” Lewinsky says. “I think it’s fair to say that whatever mistakes I made, I was hung out to dry by a lot of people – by a lot of the feminists who had loud voices. I wish it had been handled differently. It was very scary and very confusing to be a young woman thrust on to the world stage and not belonging to any group. I didn’t belong to anybody.”
Her plan after graduating was to get a job and lead “a much more private life, and move towards a more normal developmental path”. But she found that nobody would employ her. The stigma outweighed her qualifications and aptitude. She couldn’t even get volunteer work with a charity. “I was going through such a hard time,” she says, “I felt so shattered, it took me six months to even get up the courage to approach this particular organisation. And when I did, they told me my working there ‘wasn’t a good idea’. It was a very desolate 10 years for me. I was really floundering. I could not find my way.”