The most infamous affair in the country may have taken place some 20 years ago, but Monica Lewinsky's name carries the weight of a scandal whose political and cultural impact continues even today. After years of staying out of the public eye, Lewinsky has re-emerged as a powerful anti-bullying advocate, exercising control over her image just as rigorously as the media robbed her of it while covering her relationship with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Lewinsky made her comeback in a powerful essay for Vanity Fair last year, followed by a TED Talk in which her remark, "I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously," prompted the public and journalistic empathy that was missing when the affair broke.
Recently, in a rare interview with The Guardian, Lewinsky opened up about being the first target of the internet's collective wrath and about her work as an anti-bullying activist today.
"I felt like every layer of my skin and my identity were ripped off of me in '98 and '99," Lewinsky told reporter Jon Ronson. "It's a skinning of sorts. You feel incredibly raw and frightened. But I also feel like the shame sticks to you like tar."
Ronson wrote in detail about the guarded wariness that Lewinsky — who said that her constant fear of misspeaking left her "exhausted" — exuded. "I still have to manage a lot of trauma any time I put myself in the hands of other people," she conceded.
When Ronson mentioned the well-known fact that women are the most vulnerable to rampant, unchecked, and often vicious judgment on the internet, Lewinsky noted that engaging in such gender-specific cyber-bullying isn't just exclusive to men — women, even women who claim to fight for equal rights, are often the perpetrators of misogyny, too.
"A lot of vicious things that happen online to women and minorities do happen at the hands of men. But they also happen at the hands of women. Women are not immune to misogyny," she said, adding that she, too, was made a target by respected feminists.
"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."
Most strikingly, Lewinsky seemingly harbors no ill feelings towards those doing the bullying, displaying instead a sense of compassion that was sorely lacking for her during the scandal.
"Don't bully the bully. It doesn't move the conversation forward," Lewinsky told Ronson. "I see bullying as similar to cutting. People who cut are trying to localize their pain. I think with bullying, people are suffering for myriad reasons and are projecting it. Instead of cutting themselves, they're cutting someone else."
While it's safe to say that Lewinsky would have a lot more people on her side if the high-profile affair had taken place today, her past experiences and her present advocacy serve as a reminder that humanity, though less easy to wield than judgment, is something we could have more of.