It’s amazing to think that Monica Lewinsky is only a couple of years older than I. When I was 20 and she 22, that sexual scandal happened. At the time, it seemed like something that was part of the adult world and I still didn’t quite yet feel fully adult. But as Lewinsky now admits, even with a couple of years of age on me, she didn’t have the emotional and intellectual maturity to understand what was happening to her nor the consequences that would follow. It is only all these decades later that she can begin to come to terms with the fact that consent wasn’t even possible in that relationship.
Consent is a tricky thing. What does consent mean for any of us in a society of such vast disparities of power, wealth, and resources. When your boss has all the power and you have little if any leverage, what does it mean for a worker to consent to anything? What other option does the worker have when quitting or being fired means being unemployed potentially without being able to find another job and so ending up in debt or, worse still, homeless? What does consent mean for a poor minority facing pervasive biases and a racist system of social control? What does consent of the governed mean in a country where the government is owned by plutocrats and corporations?
Consent only can exist among equals. But equality is a joke in our society. Yet we are so brainwashed that we can’t see how this extends far beyond the sphere of sexual relationships. It is at the heart of the struggle for democracy, the consent of We the People as citizens and as a community. It was the core issue over which the American Revolution was fought. Consent isn’t merely something to be given. It must be earned. And if anyone acts without our consent as they do on a daily basis in our society, we have to demand that our consent be respected. Or failing that, we must take back our consent and ensure there will be consequences for those who took advantage of us, and that is even more important for the least among us.
Betrayal of consent is betrayal of our rights and freedom, betrayal of our autonomy and independence, betrayal of our human worth. It is betrayal of what our foremothers and forefathers fought for. And the fight for democratic and egalitarian consent that began so long ago is a fight that is ongoing. As I’ve said before, something like that would be a #MeToo movement that would inspire us all to collectively fight for a better world. Individual responsibility goes hand in hand with social and moral responsibility. And responsibility isn’t possible where victims are scapegoated, costs externalized, and justice denied. With a meaningful understanding of consent, the path forward becomes clear. Consent is about choice and we must make a choice about what kind of society we want and demand, what we envision and aspire toward.
It’s time to take the next step. Our society has been immature about our understanding of consent, of freedom and democracy. We can’t remain in collective childhood forever. American society must grow up and take responsibility. And that means we Americans must begin to act like adults and treat each other as adults, that is to say as equals. What this means is greater equality of power, wealth and resources, greater equality of opportunities which can only be measured by real world results. We can’t continue to live in equality as an abstract ideal and childish fantasy. It’s time for the American Dream to become an American Reality.
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It’s amazing how the #MeToo movement has so quickly reframed our understanding of so many old things — books, movies, culture, news stories, scandals. I’ve been waiting for an updated interpretation of what was once problematically known as “the Lewinsky affair,” and I was so thrilled this week to see it coming to us from Monica Lewinsky herself.
In a personal essay for Vanity Fair, on the 20th anniversary of Ken Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton, Lewinsky reconsiders her relationship with Clinton — 27 years her senior — through the lens of 2018, and realizes that given their power differential, the word “consensual” might not have perfectly applied.
Given my PTSD and my understanding of trauma, it’s very likely that my thinking would not necessarily be changing at this time had it not been for the #MeToo movement—not only because of the new lens it has provided but also because of how it has offered new avenues toward the safety that comes from solidarity. Just four years ago, in an essay for this magazine, I wrote the following: “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)
Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances—and the ability to abuse them—do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)
But it’s also complicated. Very, very complicated. The dictionary definition of “consent”? “To give permission for something to happen.” And yet what did the “something” mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age? Was the “something” just about crossing a line of sexual (and later emotional) intimacy? (An intimacy I wanted—with a 22-year-old’s limited understanding of the consequences.) He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college. (Note to the trolls, both Democratic and Republican: none of the above excuses me for my responsibility for what happened. I meet Regret every day.)