In an interview with CBS News earlier in October, former Secretary of State and Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton defended former President Bill Clinton in regards to the sexual conduct scandal that transpired between him and then-Congressional Intern Monica Lewinsky. At the time of the scandal, Lewinsky was 22-years-old. Clinton was the President of the United States.
Clinton mentioned that she did not believe there had been an “abuse of power” because Lewinsky was a consenting adult at the time. She also defended her husband’s decision not to resign once the scandal became public.
Her words come on the heels of a heated debate in America discussing the implications of sexual assault, as the #MeToo movement and other efforts to raise awareness for sexual assault survivors become things we talk about regularly. While many of us may think we have an understanding of what constitutes sexual transgressions, the reality is that the situations at hand when we discuss these ideas are far more nuanced — and the abuse of power is an important part of this.
My intention here is not necessarily to become a die-hard critic of Hillary — I gladly supported her in 2016 and do not shy away from that, however, I think that it is more than fair to raise concerns over the language she uses when she discusses what happened between Clinton and Lewinsky, and understanding how this is problematic can serve as a lesson for us to better understand the role that power plays in sexual relationships. In dismissing what happened between Lewinsky and her husband in the late 90s as just an affair between “two consenting adults”, Clinton also dismisses the role that power may have had in such a situation. The truth is, abuse of power can happen at any age to absolutely anyone.
I also don’t mean to imply that what happened to Lewinsky was necessarily a textbook case of sexual assault. In an essay she wrote for Vanity Fair earlier this year, she says, “what transpired between Bill Clinton and myself was not sexual assault, although we now recognize that it constituted a gross abuse of power”. The key lesson here is that although she may have consented to what transpired, that does not mean we should ignore the imbalance of power between the President of the United States and a White House intern. To understand the nuance at play in the situation is to have a better grasp of how complicated sexual relationships can be, as well as, to serve as a lesson for all of us in understanding how these dynamics work.
If a person holds significant power — not only in age, but in position and esteem — how can the other person be expected to “say no”? What are the social ramifications of that rejection, and how many people are lured into unwanted sexual experiences because of this? We may understand at a rational level that these imbalances are unfair, but if we dismiss occasions where it is made public, we likewise dismiss the many cases we don’t hear about.
If we are striving towards a more equitable society, especially in the world of movements like #MeToo, it is crucial that we educate ourselves on what exactly happens behind the words “sexual assault” or “misconduct”. It is up to us to understand the nuance behind these complicated dynamics and to educate those around us — and that extends beyond the typical definitions. There is always more to the story, and in order to be well informed citizens, we have to look for it.