“Thankfully, people aren’t punched every day on the street. But it happens all the time on the internet.”
Monica Lewinsky, 2014
To many, Monica Lewinsky is an eternal punchline, the original intern joke. In fact, during one of my first forays into the adult world of ballpoint pens and lunchbreaks, the company CEO used her image in the induction powerpoint.
To others, Lewinsky was the first victim of this mammoth thing we’ve decided to call social media. She was the prelude to the culture of lightening shame and communal judgment that rages every day online. Her affair with the President of the United States came to light after details were published on the political news blog Drudge Report in 1998, one of the first of its kind.
Nowadays, attempts to ruin, and in some cases end, the lives of women the world over are so commonplace they rarely surprise us anymore. Hollywood actresses with a small legion of press and lawyers at their disposal. ‘Ordinary’ women whose ex-lovers take to internet forums to unleash vileness. Young women – girls, really – who are taken advantage of at public events and see not a helping hand but cameras crowding the eyeline. Mass mistreatment is shared across various lives and platforms, a hashtag is invariably born.
This status as the first victim is one Monica Lewinsky admits herself – she spoke at the Forbes ‘30 under 30’ conference in Philadelphia yesterday about the aftermath of her affair with the married President, “Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one. I was Patient Zero. The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet. There was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram back then. But there were gossip, news and entertainment websites replete with comment sections and emails could be forwarded.” Lewinsky’s life ever since has been headlined by the scandal. Last August she broke her silence in an article for Vanity Fair and the sexism she has endured. At one event in 2001 she was asked onstage, “How does it feel to be America’s premier blow-job queen?”
It is an amazing, and unexpected, speech about the fallout of a personal disaster, a public scandal and the human life affected by the 24-hour news cycle. Forbes have published Monica’s words in full. We implore you to read her words about what is essentially cyber bullying. She talks honestly about the suicidal thoughts she had when a report about her affair with the president was published – “…a relentless mantra in my head: I want to die.” She was called a slut. She was called fat. She lost her name to notoriety – but she is now reclaiming it.
“My name is Monica Lewinsky. Though I have often been advised to change it, or asked why on earth I haven’t. But, there we are. I haven’t. I am still Monica Lewinsky.”
Lewinsky says she was obliged to enter the public eye again after reading about the suicide of a young college student Tyler Clementi. A videotape of Tyler kissing another man had been streamed online without his knowledge, the resulting bullying was relentless. She uses the term “humiliated to death”. She quotes statistics that will make you think twice about ever logging on again. Lewinsky admits she came very close to such a fate, but is now coming forward as a social campaigner to help spread the Tyler Clementi Foundation’s message of tolerance, safety, inclusiveness and respect. She’s calling on people to sharpen their empathy online, not their bon mot claws, “…what we need is a radical change in attitudes — on the internet, mobile platforms and in the society of which they are a part.”
It’s been a long time since she claimed her true voice – it actually may have been the first time this bookmark of the nineties has ever really spoken. She even joined Twitter – the battleground of trolls who have issued death threats against women campaigning to get Jane Austen put on the £10 note, and now the site of #gamergate, a concentrated and terrifying effort by misogynistic gamers to exclude women from the industry.
— Monica Lewinsky (@MonicaLewinsky) October 20, 2014
To many, Monica Lewinsky will remain a name loaded with ribald intent. To others, she may be a heroine whose honesty and very modern bravery will remind victims the world over that they are entitled to private life. And to those who still call her names because of a relationship she engaged with aged 22?
“The problem is that I believe in the power of story. In the power of stories to inspire, comfort, educate and change things for the better: fictional stories, stories from history, news stories and yes, personal stories. I believe my story can help. Help to do something to change the culture of humiliation we inhabit and that inhabits us. I had been publicly silent for a decade. But now, I must – as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock said – disturb the universe.”
Hear her disturb the universe below. Monica, it’s nice to finally get to know you.
Follow Jeanne Sutton on Twitter @jeannedesutun