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Eliana Rodgers for Vox

Every version of the Monica Lewinsky story reveals America’s failure of empathy

Twenty-three years later, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is a tale of cultural sadism.

All famous women are symbols of something in American pop culture. But Monica Lewinsky is singular for being, among other things, a symbol of a symbol.

When the story broke in 1998 that President Bill Clinton had carried out an affair with young former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the media eagerly prepared to make Lewinsky the face of the scandal. In newspapers and on cable news and talk shows she became, variously, a slut, an innocent victim, a liberated woman, someone sexy, someone fat, someone feminine, someone unwomanly. Her name became synonymous with a sex act. Her humiliation became a national spectacle.

“I became a social representation,” Lewinsky would later write for Vanity Fair, “a social canvas on which anybody could project their confusion about women, sex, infidelity, politics, and body issues.”

With that essay, Lewinsky also became one of the first people to help construct the framework for our current reevaluation of the mores of the ’90s and 2000s. In 2014, she reemerged into public view as an anti-bullying advocate, first with a well-received TED talk and then with the Vanity Fair article, in both, asking the country to reconsider its eagerness to shame her.

In the public eye, Lewinsky wrote, she had become, “America’s B.J. Queen. That Intern. That Vixen. Or, in the inescapable phrase of our 42nd president, ‘That Woman.’” But, she added, “It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a person.”

Many reacted with a surprising amount of remorse. “I started to feel bad,” David Letterman said on the air after he read Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair article. “Because myself and other people with shows like this made relentless jokes about the poor woman. And she was a kid, she was 21, 22. … I feel bad about my role in helping push the humiliation to the point of suffocation.”

Lewinsky had made a mistake, the consensus came to be, but that was no excuse for the way the world humiliated her. People should be allowed to make mistakes when they’re 22 without becoming the object of vicious scorn the way she did.

As the Me Too movement took off in 2017, the Monica Lewinsky story evolved once again, and Lewinsky became a symbol of how liberals got feminism wrong in 1998. The new line of thinking was that responsibility for the mistake had rested with Bill Clinton all along. He was the one who had all the power in his relationship with Lewinsky. He was the leader of the free world, and she was a 22-year-old intern. He was the one who had a responsibility not to pursue a relationship with her. The fact that he did anyway was an abuse of his power.

“Fifty-something leaders of organizations shouldn’t be carrying on affairs with interns who work for them,” wrote Matthew Yglesias for Vox in 2017, “regardless of whether the affair is in some sense consensual.” Clinton, Yglesias argued, should have resigned.

Part of this more recent consensus is the idea that liberals and feminists got it wrong back in 1998 by rallying behind Clinton instead of publicly supporting Lewinsky, that they focused all their attention on the fact that Lewinsky said the affair was consensual rather than on the vast power disparity between Clinton and Lewinsky. Back then, we didn’t really understand about power and consent, but now we do, because as a culture we have gotten better. That has come to be the new conventional wisdom about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

However, if we revisit the reactions people had to Monica Lewinsky in 1998, it becomes clear that few were actually ignoring that power disparity back then. It was central to the story being told about Monica Lewinsky, though the associations it carried were far different from those it carries today.

“Readers of Kenneth Starr’s report,” the Washington Post opined in September 1998, shortly after independent counsel Ken Starr released the infamous details of his investigation into Clinton, “imagine her as the star of either ‘Fatal Attraction’ or ‘Seduced and Abandoned’ — or ‘Dumb and Dumber.’” Starr’s 453-page report went into explicit detail about the sexual relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky in a “blow-by-blow account,” as contemporary commenters were prone to note with a chuckle. And the Post was correct in its summary of the Starr report’s reception: Those movie narratives were the dominant reads playing across America at the time.

But regardless of whether you’re reading her as the star of Fatal Attraction, Seduced and Abandoned, or Dumb and Dumber, it’s obvious Lewinsky isn’t a wicked and powerful seductress. She’s very clearly the one with no power. That’s part of what made the story so salacious, according to the mores of the time, and Lewinsky’s humiliation so delicious as well.

From the vantage point of 2021, Lewinsky’s comparative powerlessness makes her a clear victim in Interngate — mostly. In contrast, the media narratives of the late ’90s, both feminist and anti-feminist, translated Lewinsky’s comparative powerlessness into an ever-shifting status of submissive slut, innocent victim, liberated woman, and unwomanly shrew.

As we track the way those narratives played out in the press throughout the late ’90s, we can see the way our culture has evolved since 1998. What’s changed, however, is not that we’ve all developed a better understanding of how to read shifting power dynamics; instead, we’ve honed our ability to read the sadism and the misogyny of our first impulsive reactions to those dynamics.

Here’s how the public in 1998 interpreted the fact of Monica Lewinsky’s powerlessness — and how those interpretations continue to operate subliminally in the ways we talk about Lewinsky today.

Jay Leno sitting before a picture of Monica Lewinsky on The Tonight Show, July 24, 1998.
Margaret Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Narrative 1: Lewinsky was the one with no power, which made her a stupid, submissive slut unworthy of respect

The right-leaning Drudge Report was the outlet that broke the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. And its founder, Matt Drudge, had a very clear sense of what Lewinsky’s place in the story was.

Lewinsky was, Drudge reported in January 1998, “a young woman, 23, sexually involved with the love of her life, the President of the United States, since she was a 21-year-old intern at the White House. She was a frequent visitor to a small study just off the Oval Office where she claims to have indulged the president’s sexual preference.”

The narrative this report sets is almost pornographic in its erasure of Lewinsky’s personhood. She exists in this story solely to “indulge the president’s sexual preference,” with the only nod to her personality being that she considers the president “the love of her life.” She is, in this framing, powerless and easily manipulated — and therefore ripe for mockery.

The public happily followed Drudge’s lead and set to mocking Lewinsky, creating what would become the dominant cultural narrative of the moment.

In a man-on-the-street report, the Washington Post spoke to women who called Lewinsky “a naive little ho, actually,” and a “spotlight vampire.” Another Washington Post report quoted a woman who said of Lewinsky, “We all know the profile — a little fat girl out there trying to seduce powerful men.”

“Hey look at me, I’m Monica Lewinsky,” began a jingle on Howard Stern’s radio show. “They print pictures of my fat face and my ’do. Though I’ve barely finished school, I still know the golden rule: Do unto others then have them do you too.”

This early narrative was durable enough that versions of it were able to persist well past the beginning of Lewinsky’s redemption. “She’s America’s favorite beret-wearing former intern, whose very name has become a synonym for a sex act she eagerly performed on her knees, a dame who rocketed to fame for failing to dry-clean a blue dress stained with the seed of the then-leader of the free world,” wrote Andrea Peyser in the New York Post in 2014, after Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair article was published. “Now, Lewinsky, 40, wants our pity and, perhaps, a job she can perform while sitting upright. And — drum roll, please — she doesn’t blame former President Bill Clinton, the alpha male before whom she famously knelt.”

There’s a sort of just world fallacy at the center of this narrative: Lewinsky allowed herself to be treated badly by the president, therefore she deserved to be treated badly, so therefore we should treat her badly. Lewinsky, through her powerlessness, identified herself as an acceptable target for our culture’s sadism, and thus it was appropriate for us to direct it at her. She had it coming.

This version of the story is the one we are mostly thinking about when we suggest that American culture has moved past such outright vicious cruelty in the years since 1998. But there were other versions of the story floating around at the same time.

Monica Lewinsky leaves the US District Courthouse with her attorneys on August 6, 1998.
Craig Herndon/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Narrative 2: Lewinsky was the one with no power, which made her a victim who deserved our sympathy

The idea that Lewinsky’s comparative powerlessness makes her a victim of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has become the dominant narrative of our own era. It also existed in 1998, albeit as a minority view.

It was, strikingly, a viewpoint held both by feminists on the left, where the opinion was politically unhelpful and hence unpopular, and by the conservative religious right, where the opinion was politically very useful indeed.

Linda Hirshman, a feminist lawyer and professor of philosophy and women’s studies, called on Clinton to resign at the time, citing the fraught power dynamic between Clinton and Lewinsky and the idea that the relationship would have been inherently damaging to Lewinsky.

“I think it’s wrong,” Hirshman said on the radio program Democracy Now in 1998. “I think the fact that presidents have done it since the beginning of the republic is not an excuse. … The ways he interacted with her, if it’s true, is indeed a violation of our contemporary ideas about the moral and proper way to deal with other human beings in our world.”

“You don’t have such fraught relationships with people who are so fragile,” Hirshman told Slate’s Slow Burn podcast in 2018. “I just went back to her grand jury testimony, and it is really wrenching. I mean, and what her friends were saying at the time, and what her mother was saying. Obviously there was available to objective observers evidence of how painful this was for her no matter what she was saying about how she was fine. Any mother of a teenage daughter knows that they’ll always say they’re fine.”

In that viewpoint, Hirshman found an unlikely ally in conservative then-Sen. John Ashcroft. In her 1998 Democracy Now interview, she approvingly cited Ashcroft’s analysis of the power dynamics at hand. “Ashcroft was on the news yesterday, saying — I thought quite movingly and convincingly,” she said, “that the disproportion of power between the chief executive of the United States, a notoriously and legendarily persuasive Bill Clinton, on the one hand, and a young woman two months out of college on the other, would at least give you some pause.”

Notably, this argument didn’t exist only on the right and in the extreme reaches of feminist discourse. Other feminists made similar cases.

Clearly the Monica Lewinsky scandal is not a case of illegal sexual harassment,” columnist Marjorie Williams allowed in Vanity Fair in 1998. There had been no quid pro quo; Lewinsky had by her own account consented. “But if Clinton had the relationship with her that the available evidence suggests he had, it flew in the face of the law’s spirit and reasoning.”

Williams considered the willingness of mainstream feminists to stand by Clinton, and especially the common feminist argument that Clinton’s marriage to the brilliant Hillary Clinton showed him to be a friend to women, to be a betrayal of the cause. “There’s an awful affront to women in the apparently sharp distinctions that Clinton draws between the kind of woman you marry and the kind of woman you seek out for pleasure,” Williams wrote. “We were supposed to be doing away with the Madonna and the whore — or at least trying to integrate them.”

Clinton also faced disapproval from women within his administration. At a private Cabinet meeting in September 1998, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala spoke out against Clinton’s actions directly to his face. Shalala was a former college president, she explained to Slow Burn in 2018, and she used to fire people for doing more or less what Clinton had done to Lewinsky.

“If you’re a college president, the last thing you do is let people hit on students,” she said. “I mean, we have rules about these things. And it was just unacceptable, and everybody was being a bit of an apologist for him in the room and I just blew up.”

In August 1998, one of Clinton’s supporters in Congress vented on the issue to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “It’s the grossest kind of infidelity,” the anonymous woman said, “just sheer constant physical relief and satisfaction, really using in the crudest way somebody who was obviously extraordinarily gullible and obviously madly in love with him, somebody who would have done anything for him, and doing this in the Oval Office. I’m having a very hard time with it. I don’t want to be an enabler.”

It’s striking that Dowd is the figure who publicized this view. In her early coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Dowd was sharply critical of Clinton’s abuse of power and sympathetic to Lewinsky as a victim. Yet in her later columns, Dowd would begin to criticize Lewinsky, too, in ways that show how this second narrative of the scandal could contain within it a cruel and vicious third narrative.

Monica Lewinsky rides in a car driven by one of her lawyers in downtown Washington, DC, August 1998.
Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Narrative 3: Lewinsky was the one with no power, which made her a victim, which is extremely funny and a reason to further humiliate her

In June 1998, six months after the story broke, Monica Lewinsky posed for a series of portraits in Vanity Fair, wearing red lipstick and designer gowns. In a New York Times column, Maureen Dowd argued that the portraits were “pornography” and that they were “sickening.” (Lewinsky was fully clothed in every picture.)

What Dowd seemed to find pornographic and sickening about the photos was the way they played against her sense that Lewinsky was a victim and hence properly deserved to be in a state of humiliation. That she wasn’t humiliated in those pictures — that they were glamour shots — Dowd seemed to find both jarring and offensive.

“The weird thing about the shot of Monica clutching the feathers is that it’s not sultry. It’s saddening,” Dowd wrote. “Stubby and white, her hand looks disturbingly childlike. Her short nails are painted red, like a little girl who has put on her mother’s polish. Shades of JonBenet Ramsey.” The photographs, Dowd concludes, show that “there’s one thing Monica has immunity from: brains.”

This was the third narrative of the Monica Lewinsky story, and it functions as a synthesis of the first two. Lewinsky was unquestionably taken advantage of, goes this version of the story, and Clinton was unquestionably in the wrong. But the fact that Lewinsky could be so easily manipulated proves that she was foolish and childlike. Her victimhood means that she deserves contempt and scorn.

At times, this narrative is able to veil itself in apparent pity for Lewinsky. Yet even then, there’s always a sort of delighted lingering on all the ways her failings make her a victim, on all the ways that she must have been silly and unsophisticated for falling prey to Clinton. “She is typical of the nihilism of female sexuality at this point,” a 25-year-old spokesperson for the Independent Women’s Forum, an anti-feminist group of women intellectuals, told the Washington Post of Lewinsky in 1998. “I think it’s tragic someone in his position so brutally exploited her lack of understanding and sophistication. This poor little girl thought this was going to be like ‘Dynasty.’”

The same logic also emerged on the feminist left. In the New York Observer, the feminist writer Susan Faludi linked Lewinsky, along with Clinton accusers Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick, to the “Girl Power feminism” she rather incoherently identified with such disparate cultural figures as the Spice Girls and Fiona Apple.

Girl power, Faludi argued, “is derived only by celebrating yourself, ideally via your injuries; gaining power by talking about what was done to you. It is, by definition, only a destructive power, aimed at bringing down the bogeyman by having a sulk ‘n’ sob in front of the adults. It’s the power available to a girl whose only recourse is tattle. The many plaintiffs of the Clinton scandals are cast, or cast themselves, as girls.”

Faludi did not dispute, in this particular article, accounts that Lewinsky, Jones, and Broaddrick had been injured by Clinton. (Elsewhere she would famously argue of Lewinsky that “if anything, it sounds like she put the moves on him.”) Her argument is rather that by speaking out about their injuries, Clinton’s accusers had been acting like victims and hence children. To be a victim of a sexual predator is, according to this narrative, to be worthy of humiliation.

But Faludi, like Linda Hirshman and Marjorie Williams, wasn’t expressing the mainstream feminist narrative about Monica Lewinsky. That idea lay in the fourth version of the Monica Lewinsky story.

Monica Lewinsky leaves the Cosmos Club in DC with her attorney William Ginsberg, left, 1998.
Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Narrative 4: In seducing the president, Monica Lewinsky grabbed for power when she properly had none, which made her a liberated woman — and an object of contempt

In 1998, when feminists like Hirshman made the claim that Clinton took advantage of Lewinsky, they were met with outrage from other feminists.

“We want the right to be sexually active without the presumption that we were used or duped,” argued Amelia Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner in the Nation. “If feminists hold Lewinsky up as a violated naif, then we don’t believe that an adult woman can take responsibility for her own desires and actions. In other words, we will have gone a long way back, baby. Feminists should support Monica Lewinsky not as a victim of a rapacious man but as a young woman with a libido of her own.”

This fourth Monica Lewinsky narrative made the case that, regardless of any disparity in power between intern and president, Lewinsky was fully capable of making her own sexual choices. It turned away from Clinton’s responsibility to say no to focus on Lewinsky’s right to say yes, and it treated that right as empowering — almost as empowering, in its own way, as a female president would have been.

“It’s like every girl’s dream,” said Elizabeth Benedict, author of The Joy of Writing Sex, in a feminist roundtable on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal for the New York Observer that famously ran under the headline “New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez.” Benedict celebrated the feminist dream of the ’90s: “You can be the President, but you can fuck the President, too.”

“And you get a dress,” added former Saturday Night Live writer Patricia Marx.

In 2018, the Observer editor who put together that roundtable, Lisa Chase, told Slate’s Slow Burn that she had felt the roundtable was a productive feminist response to the scandal. Host Leon Neyfakh summarizes her reasoning as: “Feminist thinking about sex can be divided into two strains — one that’s all about a woman’s right to sexual agency, and one that’s about a woman’s right to be free from sexual predation. Chase thinks that maybe the supergals who met at Le Bernardin 20 years ago were more focused on the former because they were that much closer to a time when women didn’t have sexual autonomy and self-determination.”

But two decades later, that Observer roundtable and its lascivious glee at the delight of sex with the president are understandably remembered as a symbol of all the ways feminists failed Lewinsky.

Shortly after discussing all the ways in which it would be a dream to sleep with the president, the panel turns to the question of what Lewinsky might do next. Nancy Friday, author of The Power of Beauty, has a constructive suggestion. “She can rent out her mouth,” she says.

“But, you know, men do like to get close to the mouth that has been close to power,” muses Fear of Flying author Erica Jong. “Think of the fantasy in the man’s mind as she’s going down on him and he’s thinking, Oh, my God.”

After further debate as to whether Lewinsky spat or swallowed after oral sex, Jung comes to a conclusion. “I think if we were old-fashioned women, we would be saying she should be burned as a witch, basically,” she says. “And I think it’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that we’re not trashing Monica Lewinsky.”

Jung’s belief that it is liberating for the panel not to trash Lewinsky lines up with Chase’s sense that the panel is nothing more than a group of feminists celebrating all the ways women have come a long way, baby: Not only can a woman become the president (although then, as now, we’re short on practical proof of that assertion), but she can also have sex with the president (although then, as now, it seems unlikely that question was ever in doubt).

In 2000, the short-lived satirical WB comedy Grosse Pointe would parody this idea, that to celebrate Lewinsky’s sexuality was to celebrate her. The show sees a young airheaded actress audition to play Lewinsky in an upcoming prestige biopic.

“Monica Lewinsky is the defining woman of our generation,” breathes her friend.

“She knew what she wanted, and she went after it,” the actress says. “She brought this whole country to its knees.”

“And still kept her dignity,” the friend adds.

The double entendre of the conversation makes clear what the gleeful salaciousness of the Observer panel also revealed: how little distance there is between this celebratory feminist narrative and that original mainstream narrative that Lewinsky was nothing more than a slut who deserved to be humiliated. It’s the same sadistic impulse all over again.

Lewinsky allowed herself to be treated badly by the president. Therefore she deserves to be treated badly. Therefore we should treat her badly. All that the celebratory feminist narrative defends is Lewinsky’s so-called choice to be humiliated.

Monica Lewinsky attends the Hollywood premiere of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story in September 2021.
Rich Fury/WireImage

Every story we tell about Monica Lewinsky holds the possibility of humiliating her. We still haven’t fully found our way out of that trap.

Today, the national consensus lies more or less with Hirshman in casting Lewinsky as a victim who deserves our sympathy: Lewinsky was Clinton’s subordinate, and he took advantage of her, and that was wrong. We have a collective sense, moreover, that we failed her in our endless national slut-shaming of her. Matt Yglesias’s simple and correct assertion from 2017 more or less lines up with the consensus on sexual morality today: “Fifty-something leaders of organizations shouldn’t be carrying on affairs with interns who work for them regardless of whether the affair is in some sense consensual.”

Still, over and over again, as America delves into the details of this story, discomfort lingers. There is some awkward snag that seems to exist around the idea that by her own account, Lewinsky eagerly pursued Clinton. We seem to have trouble believing that both this fact and the idea that he never should have allowed himself to be seduced may be true at once.

In 2016, the podcast You’re Wrong About ran an episode on Lewinsky. Hosts Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall were speaking after Lewinsky’s first comeback essay but before Me Too mainstreamed the idea that Clinton was absolutely wrong in his conduct toward Lewinsky. At the end, Hobbes mused over how difficult he found her to analyze as a subject, in part because of how enthusiastically she pursued Clinton.

“I kind of wanted to reclaim Lewinsky as a feminist hero and a total victim of all this. And obviously she is,” he said. “But it’s also just amazing to me that she did some really stupid shit. She was calling him 20 times a day at the end. She had convinced herself he was in love with her. I don’t think the punishment fit the crime. I think what she went through in the ’90s was wildly disproportionate. … But she did some stupid shit.”

On an episode of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast in 2018, host Leon Neyfakh begins laughing with Hanna Rosin, a journalist who covered the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in 1998, about how absurd it was for Bill Clinton to have pursued an affair with his intern while he was actively being sued for workplace sexual harassment. Rosin laughs, too, and then seems to catch herself.

“Oh, it’s not funny. It’s really not funny. God, we think of this so differently now,” she says, still laughing. “It’s not funny. I’m actually amazed that in my conversation with you I’m still laughing. Because I did think in my head, the Monica Lewinsky scandal really does mark a moment in feminist shame. It is genuinely the thing I look back on and think, God, the way — I mean, everyone says this — but the way we talked about her, the way we treated her, how blind we were to the power dynamics. We talked about them but in this kind of superficial way, you know? It just wasn’t prime in our minds, the power dynamic and the position she was put in and how her life was absolutely ruined by this and how she got dragged into it. And yet you and I still find it funny. Why is that?”

I recognize this discomfort in myself.

Intellectually, I know that it was Clinton’s responsibility, as the 49-year-old president, to refuse advances from a 22-year-old unpaid intern. Moreover, I’m aware that Clinton has been accused multiple times of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Within that context, Clinton’s decision to carry on a sexual relationship with his young intern appears less like a one-time lapse of judgment than like part of a continued pattern of predatory behavior.

A dark-haired woman in a blue beret and red lipstick stands in a crowd, applauding an unseen figure.
Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky on Impeachment: American Crime Story.
Tina Thorpe/FX

Yet I recently sat down to watch Ryan Murphy’s Impeachment: American Crime Story miniseries, which debuted in September on FX. And when I saw Beanie Feldstein as Lewinsky flash Clinton her thong in the office shortly before their first sexual encounter, for a split second I felt a sort of defensive shock. A bizarre thought appeared in my mind: Wasn’t it blaming the victim, I wondered, to suggest that she pursued him so brazenly?

Of course, Lewinsky did pursue Clinton. The flashed thong is a matter of historical record. It has been more thoroughly investigated than possibly any other sexual advance in history.

What my brain tripped on, I think, is some still-present inability to reconcile Lewinsky as a woman with her own sexual desires and agency and as a figure who was taken advantage of. We have made this binary an either/or proposition, when it is entirely possible for it to be a both/and. That’s where the discomfort lies.

Lewinsky herself, as she begins to take more and more control of her narrative, seems to often recognize the discomfort people feel around the question of her complicity in the affair, and the extent to which they might find it funny. For most of her public life, she has maintained that her relationship with Clinton was fully consensual and that the true villain of the story was Ken Starr and the media witch hunt she experienced after he published his report. But in 2018, in the midst of a resurgent Me Too movement, she expressed a few other thoughts.

“Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot,” she wrote for Vanity Fair. “‘This’ (sigh) is as far as I’ve gotten in my re-evaluation; I want to be thoughtful.”

It was Lewinsky who, serving as a producer on Impeachment, told the show’s writers not to elide her decision to go after Clinton and to show the thong flash on camera. “I just felt I shouldn’t get a pass,” she told the New York Times.

It makes sense that Lewinsky is being so cautious and so thoughtful about this question, so unwilling to commit to one particular interpretation of the facts. Every version of the story we tell about her, even the good ones, contains within itself the possibility of another story in which she is humiliated. That’s a fact of which she is fully aware.

“So often have I struggled with my own sense of agency versus victimhood,” she explained in her 2018 Vanity Fair essay. “In 1998, we were living in times in which women’s sexuality was a marker of their agency — ‘owning desire.’ And yet, I felt that if I saw myself as in any way a victim, it would open the door to choruses of: ‘See, you did merely service him.’”

In 1998, we excoriated Lewinsky for being a woman adjacent to the idea of sex. Not having sex would not have saved her from our scorn, not as long as there was a sex scandal happening within her vicinity. (As right-wing sloganeers are happy to remind you, “Hillary sucks but Monica swallows.”)

Part of the project of feminism over the past 20 years has been to broaden the narrative, to create space for a world in which a woman may exist in proximity to a sex scandal and not be understood as deserving of humiliation. Yet despite a widely held desire and ongoing effort to distinguish between the two, we can find ourselves caught in this vexed sort of purity test: Is Lewinsky enough of a victim for our sympathy? How much of a victim must she be to deserve respect? Can she be both a victim and a woman expressing sexual agency?

America’s intellectual understanding of consent has evolved and matured by leaps and bounds since the Starr Report first arrived. But for many of us, this intellectual understanding is still not quite equal to the engrained sexual morality we grew up on.

So if we find ourselves, despite our better judgment, longing to demand proof of victimhood from the women we extend our empathy toward, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised at our own thought patterns. After all, that’s the sexual morality millennials grew up on. We learned it from the same place we learned what a blow job is: the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

In the Purity Chronicles, Vox looks back at the sexual and gendered mores of the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time. Read more here.

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