Essays

Shame and Survival–Monica Lewinsky on the Culture of Humiliation

by Monica Lewinsky

3XKRspoM“How does it feel to be America’s premier blow-job queen?”

It was early 2001. I was sitting on the stage of New York’s Cooper Union in the middle of taping a Q&A for an HBO documentary. I was the subject. And I was thunderstruck.

Hundreds of people in the audience, mostly students, were staring at me, many with their mouths agape, wondering if I would dare to answer this question.

The main reason I had agreed to participate in the program was not to rehash or revise the story line of Interngate but to try to shift the focus to meaningful issues. Many troubling political and judicial questions had been brought to light by the investigation and impeachment of President Bill Clinton. But the most egregious had been generally ignored. People seemed indifferent to the deeper matters at hand, such as the erosion of private life in the public sphere, the balance of power and gender inequality in politics and media, and the erosion of legal protections to ensure that neither a parent nor a child should ever have to testify against each other.

How naïve I was.

There were gasps and sputters from the audience. Numerous blurred, faceless people called out, “Don’t answer it!

“It’s hurtful and it’s insulting,” I said, attempting to gather my wits. “And as insulting as it is to me, it’s even more insulting to my family. I don’t actually know why this whole story became about oral sex. I don’t. It was a mutual relationship.… The fact that it did is maybe a result of a male-dominated society.”

The audience laughed. Maybe they were surprised to hear these words coming from me.

I looked straight at the smirking guy who had asked the question. “You might be better poised to answer that.” After a pause, I added, “That’s probably cost me another year of therapy.”

You could argue that in agreeing to participate in an HBO documentary called Monica in Black and White I had signed up to be shamed and publicly humiliated yet again. You might even think I would have been inured to humiliation. This encounter at Cooper Union, after all, paled in comparison with the 445-page Starr Report, which was the culmination of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s four-year investigation of the Clinton White House. It included chapter and verse about my intimate sexual activities, along with transcripts of audiotapes that chronicled many of my private conversations. But the “B.J. Queen” question—which was included in the show when it aired on HBO in 2002—sat with me for a long time after the audience left and the taping wrapped.

True, this wasn’t the first time I’d been stigmatized for my affair with Bill Clinton. But never had I been so directly confronted, one-on-one, with such a crass characterization. One of the unintended consequences of my agreeing to put myself out there and to try to tell the truth had been that shame would once again be hung around my neck like a scarlet-A albatross. Believe me, once it’s on, it is a bitch to take off.

Had that awkward moment at Cooper Union aired only a few years later, with the advent of social media, the humiliation would have been even more devastating. That clip would have gone viral on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, TMZ, Gawker. It would have become a meme of its own on Tumblr. The viralness itself would have merited mention on the Daily Beast and Huffington Post. As it was, it was viral enough, and, thanks to the all-encompassing nature of the Web, you can, 12 years later, watch it all day long on YouTube if you want to (but I really hope you have better things to do with your time).

I know I’m not alone when it comes to public humiliation. No one, it seems, can escape the unforgiving gaze of the Internet, where gossip, half-truths, and lies take root and fester. We have created, to borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, a “culture of humiliation” that not only encourages and revels in Schadenfreude but also rewards those who humiliate others, from the ranks of the paparazzi to the gossip bloggers, the late-night comedians, and the Web “entrepreneurs” who profit from clandestine videos.

Yes, we’re all connected now. We can tweet a revolution in the streets or chronicle achievements large and small. . . .

Please keep reading at Vanity Fair–it just gets better. And watch her TED Talk here.

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