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Clinton, Greitens and rethinking consent

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Bill Clinton bristles at questions on Lewinsky, #MeToo

In this Monday, May 21, 2018 photo, former President Bill Clinton speaks during an interview about a novel he wrote with James Patterson, "The President is Missing," in New York. Clinton says the #MeToo movement was overdue, but bristled at a reporter’s question about whether he should have resigned over his relationship with then-White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. “I dealt with it 20 years ago,” Clinton tells NBC, in an appearance promoting his crime thriller books with author James Patterson. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

It was, admittedly, not Bill Clinton’s finest hour.

In his defensive interview with NBC’s Craig Melvin, Clinton asserted that — even in light of the #MeToo movement — he would have responded no differently to the scandal that led to his impeachment.

This has led many to compare our former president to our current one. Both have become symbols for the dangers that powerful men pose to women in the workplace and beyond.

But if Donald Trump represents Clinton’s (more) evil twin, Monica Lewinsky represents the possibilities of a better self. Unlike either president, Lewinsky has reckoned with her past — specifically, with her understanding of consent.

Clinton argues, simply, that both partners were willing. For years, Lewinsky insisted that their affair was consensual but, inspired by #MeToo, she has begun to consider whether, as she wrote in Vanity Fair, “the idea of consent might well be rendered moot” by extreme power imbalances.

Feminists have long advocated a critical approach to consent. In an unequal society, what does it mean to give consent? Lewinsky herself notes that the issue is “very, very complicated.”

So it’s striking that Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair article begins not with Clinton, but with Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who turned her life, at age 24, “into a living hell.” It was Starr who, without Lewinsky’s consent, put her intimate relationship at the center of an impeachment campaign. Indeed, Lewinsky traces her diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder not to the affair, but to “the ordeal of having been publicly outed and ostracized.”

Clinton played a role in that trauma. So did Starr, his staff, Clinton’s enemies and the media. So, too, did the American public. During the impeachment trial, only 12 percent of Americans viewed Lewinsky favorably and 42 percent expressed “no sympathy” for her.

Many of us have traveled quite a ways from that cultural moment, due in no small part to Lewinsky’s continued efforts to reframe her own experience. Nevertheless, to focus, as so many have, on Clinton’s refusal to apologize personally for his actions is to overlook the continuing structural inequalities that make consent so very complicated.

Another political sex scandal — that surrounding former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens — may be illuminating here.

Greitens’ resignation, on June 1, was induced by campaign finance violations and an invasion-of-privacy prosecution. The governor was charged with taking semi-nude pictures, without consent, of “K.S.,” a woman with whom he’d had an affair while running for office. Though later dropped, that charge was key to his political demise.

There are important differences between the Greitens and Clinton-Lewinsky scandals. K.S. was Greitens’ hairdresser, and he came on to her at her workplace, but he was not her boss. Still, the similarities are notable, and go beyond claims, made by both men, that the relationships were consensual.

Just as Lewinsky was outed against her will, K.S.’s experience came to light only after a series of privacy violations. Her estranged husband secretly audiotaped their conversation. Local media broke the story, despite her pleas not to. Missouri’s Republican-controlled Legislature, fed up with their upstart governor, released an investigative report detailing their sexual interactions.

Although her identity has not been made public, K.S. was forced to confess to her children and feared the effects on her business, her clients, and her family and friends. Like Monica Lewinsky, her life was made a living hell.

The question of when K.S.’s relationship with Greitens was consensual, and when it was coercive and even abusive, is indeed very complicated. But one thing remains crystal clear:

She did not consent to its public uses.

Even in the age of #MeToo, when those who’ve experienced sexual violence are speaking out and fighting back, the sex lives of women — and other marginalized people, including LGBTQ folk and people of color — remain grist for the political mill. Sex still carries an outsize burden of stigma and shame, which makes it a powerful weapon. But perhaps more importantly, sex both reproduces and is shaped by structural inequalities at work, at home, in the streets and in politics.

Both Lewinsky and K.S. experienced a form of sexual violence. Their intimate lives were stolen and used to advance political aims. This was enabled, at least in part, by larger structures built on gender inequality, among them marriage, the workforce and ideologies that simultaneously treat women as always sexually available and attack them for their desires.

It is crucial to demand that men like Clinton, Greitens and Trump take personal responsibility for the ways they’ve exploited and abused women. They have failed to listen and failed to accord women recognition and respect. Apologies are due.

But apologies only go so far. As #MeToo reminds us, we must look beyond the “bad man.” We must confront the systems that enable sexual violence — systems that all too often we countenance with our own participation.

Andrea Friedman is professor of history and of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University.

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