As a First Amendment scholar, I was optimistic about the #metoo movement. Here was a way to raise awareness about unspoken issues, to add information to the marketplace of ideas, to share previously unshared stories. We all benefit from new perspectives. The movement achieves that goal. It is a triumph of new voices and, with that, new complexities.
But while all perspectives enlighten, they are not all equally creditable, or honorable, or worthy of emulation. Since Katie Way’s story, and now with the reinvention and embrace of Monica Lewinsky, the movement is evolving to represent a vision of womanhood that we should reject. This vision of womanhood is anathema not only to free speech values such as autonomy and emotional fortitude – but to important moral values such as honesty, courage, and accountability.
Unless we are celebrating victimhood for the sake of victimhood – which I believe we should not be – there are lessons we should learn from some of the #metoo protagonists about how it is possible to be in a bad situation and also behave badly. I would like to see a vision of womanhood that recognizes our capacity for good moral choices and strength, while also appreciating that people should not take advantage of those with less power.
Monica Lewinsky initiated an affair with President Bill Clinton in the place where his wife and daughter lived. She likely lied in an affidavit and asked others to lie under oath. Now that she is reframing herself as a #metoo participant, she has been hailed as a hero and a role model. This is where #metoo has gone awry, erasing all nuance and espousing the view that it is okay to, upon reconsideration, claim that consent was “moot” for something that was clearly consensual.
Surely, Bill Clinton abused his power, and his behavior was worse than Lewinsky’s. That story should be told. But the abuse of power came not because Lewinsky was coerced in any way, or even pressured, to engage in behavior she found objectionable. Clinton should never have involved himself with someone he employed (it is easier to see that now than it was then, but it was still clear then), but that does not mean Lewinsky behaved bravely, or honorably, or should be praised. It certainly does not mean Lewinsky’s consent was invalid, or, by implication, that she is not accountable for her “yes.”
If this is the future of female empowerment, I find it alarming and objectionable. #Metoo, perhaps to overcompensate for years of being unheard, focuses people on only one side of a story, but there are many other sides. For every woman who decides it is “easier” to sleep with someone who wouldn’t otherwise give her a job, there may have been a woman who didn’t get that job because she had a more resolute sense of conviction (or was less desirable to people in power). For every woman who reconsiders whether she gave proper consent, there is a person who may have been misled into thinking he or she was participating in a consensual situation. Asking for empathy cannot be a one-sided endeavor, if empathy is part of the goal.
Empathy, in discourse, can also lead us to ignore harmful misdeeds. Lewinsky seems to want to weaponize her trauma and insulate herself from accountability. She speaks of regret, but mostly so we will feel sorry for her. She barely alludes to any wrongdoing. The world that embraces her is one where we race to the bottom of the emotional barrel, crediting those who are demonstrably suffering the most. We should be wary of insulating others from scrutiny because of their announcement of suffering.
I have no doubt that Lewinsky has suffered. Nothing excuses the decades of online harassment she has received. But she is not a role model for women. She is a woman who should have made better choices. She may have been punished disproportionately, but that does not make her wise, virtuous, or empowered.
Because the #metoo movement is about voicing new stories, and adding new complexity, we should not resort to old black and white thinking. The “victim” of a story is not always good. There was no hero here, just unfortunate decisions, and unfortunate reactions to those decisions. We should empathize with those who were lied to, and those who were betrayed. To lie and cheat is to starkly take away the autonomy of others deceived by those lies. Those who do so do not deserve extra absolution because they deem themselves to have lacked some amount of agency.