Monica Lewinsky has penned a 4,000-word, somewhat irritating and rather selective article about her treatment by the public since the affair (see Rebecca Traister at The New Republic for a great critique). The faults of her essay aside, Lewinsky is not undeserving of sympathy. What happened to her—the gross and near-total sexual shaming; the reduction of her personhood to a blowjob, a cigar and a cum stain; the fake and opportunistic sympathy from the right; the near twenty-year long tabloidization and ridicule of her every subsequent move—is irredeemably awful.
That said, Lewinsky lost me when she explained her rationale for reintroducing herself to society now—which she claims is the 2010 suicide of Rutgers gay freshman Tyler Clementi, who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge four days after his roommate briefly streamed him making out with another man in their dorm room. That tragedy, Lewinsky says, brought her to tears, and prompted her mother to relive the dark weeks in 1998 when she held a kind of suicide vigil over her daughter’s bed. Fair and tender and empathetic enough. Lewinsky also takes care to distinguish between Clementi’s plight and her own calamity, which was brought on in part by her “own poor choices.” Yes, that’s right.
But the continued juxtaposition of her ordeal with Clementi’s—as precipitated by a comparable atmosphere of “online humiliation” and “public shaming”—frankly rankles. So, too, does the subsequent self-attribution of altruistic motives. “I wished I could have had a chance to have spoken to Tyler about how my love life, my sex life, my most private moments, my most sensitive secrets, had been broadcast around the globe,” Lewinsky writes. “I wish I had been able to say to him that I knew a little of how it might have felt for him to be exposed before the world.”
This comparison, however well-intentioned, is narcissistic and inaccurate. While he lived, Clementi was in no way a public figure. He was not known globally, nationally, on campus or even particularly in his dorm. His “online harassment” lasted a total of four days, not decades. Contrary to popular belief, Clementi’s sexual encounter was neither recorded nor broadcast widely (for a more detailed account, see Ian Parker’s forensic analysis in The New Yorker and my own coverage here and here). A total of six students—Dharun Ravi, his friend Molly Wei and four others—saw only a few seconds of kissing. Ravi did tweet about the first encounter (“Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay”), and Clementi saw that tweet, prompting a formal request to change rooms. Ravi also tweeted that he would broadcast a second liaison, which Clementi thwarted by unplugging Ravi’s computer. At most, Ravi had about 150 Twitter followers, most of whom were high school friends, and there is no evidence that his two tweets circulated beyond a small circle.
Pace Lewinsky, Tyler Clementi was not the victim of a worldwide, social media–enabled public humiliation. He was the victim of rather common peer-to-peer bullying, and what role that bullying had in his decision to take his life, just four days after the first incident, is still a great mystery.
The public branding of Monica Lewinsky is not. It was an utterly predictable result of the alignment of sex, media and partisan politics. What drove her global humiliation was the fact that she had an affair with the president of the United States, that there was an independent prosecutor with broad subpoena powers to investigate that president, that every media outfit (right-wing and otherwise) had a financial reason to drive that scandal to page one and that hatchet hacks like Newt Gingrich, David Brock, Lucianne Goldberg, Matt Drudge and Linda Tripp stood to gain, politically and personally, from bringing Bill Clinton down. Moreover, very little of this had to do with online technology—which, as Lewinsky herself notes, was in its infancy in 1998 (pre-Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TMZ, Gawker). It had everything to do with politics.
Suffice to say, none of these conditions applied to Tyler Clementi. I appreciate Lewinsky’s empathy for gay teenagers, and I wish her well in her quest to find some purpose in life beyond being “that woman.” But her equation of her ordeal with Clementi’s, and the suggestion that she has something meaningful to say about it, does a disservice both to the world-historically unprecedented clusterfuck that was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and to the all-too-quotidian challenges gay teenagers like Clementi face in digitally connected communities.