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On Monica Lewinsky and a Culture of Shaming Female Sexuality
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On Monica Lewinsky and a Culture of Shaming Female Sexuality

Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com

Though I worked in the adult film industry for more than a decade, I officially retired several years ago—but I continue to be seen as a porn star. That one role has publicly defined who I am, and yet my former job says nothing about me, the person, who I am as a mother, daughter, sister and wife. I continue to be thought of by some as a one-dimensional porn star.  Sadly, there are those who refuse to think of someone who did that kind of work as a real person.

The attacks are most prominent online, and the most scathing ones appear in the comments below my articles, on my Twitter stream, or in hateful ranting emails. One person recently referred to me as “sub-human,” then tried to guilt me into regret.

But if I would let the Internet bullies win I’d cry myself to sleep every night. I’ve learned not to care what strangers think of me. I can’t.

Unlike the Internet bullies, I take full responsibility for my choices and hold myself accountable for the things I do to others. I was keenly aware that my choice to become an adult actress would put me in the spotlight. Not all choices come with that kind of clarity.

Take for instance Monica Lewinsky. The choices she made as a young adult continue to follow and define her more than a decade later. She was catapulted to household name recognition nearly immediately in the late 90s. They’d read the headlines, knew the details of her salacious scandal with the president and judged accordingly.

She became the nation’s one-dimensional presidential bimbo intern, with no women’s rights groups nor progressive media nor hashtag activism coming to her defense. But after 17 years, eons in social media time and the renewed emergence of the international spotlight on Hillary Clinton—and the seeming reality that there won’t be an end to it any time soon— Lewinsky’s story is taking on a different light.

The Good And the Bad

Despite all of the advances in the way we interact, it seems there has been little advancement in the public’s views on female sexuality: it’s a common cultural stereotype that “bad girls” love sex while the “good girls” make you wait for it. These social sexual constructs don’t apply to men at all. Few care how many one-night stands a man has, but if a women is equally promiscuous, well, that makes her a slut.

Just look up the word “slut” in the dictionary. The word is defined as “a woman who has many casual sexual partners” or “a woman with low standards of cleanliness.” To make the word apply to males, the word male must be added as an addendum.

According to sex educator and blogger Elle Chase, “there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of female sexuality at the base of all this.” It isn’t as socially acceptable for women to openly enjoy sex or do so casually, unencumbered by the love aspect. And for those that do, there can be public ruinous repercussions. “Social media makes it very easy to jump on someone to feel better about yourself instantly, much easier than it would have been years ago before there was this fast food of information,” says Chase.

Slut-shaming is no longer relegated to the halls of high school or college campuses. The damage one person can cause is now exponential thanks to the instantaneous nature of social media. It’s one thing to be gossiped about as you walk to class, turning red with embarrassment as you hear the snickers of your peers, but to feel like the entire world is in on it can be overwhelming.

And no one knows this better than Monica Lewinsky, who was perhaps one of the first women to be so publicly shamed.

“At the age of 22 I fell in love with my boss and at the age of 24 I learned the devastating consequences,” says Lewinsky in her recent TED talk.  A mistake that has earned her lifelong notoriety, a shout out in almost forty rap songs—and one she says she deeply regrets.  Former President Bill Clinton publicly apologized for his behavior, paying his public penance and then surged forward with a career only marginally marred by the scandal. Whereas their consensual relationship has continued to haunt Lewinsky, defining her life as “that woman,” a social pariah few would later hire.

Labeled a slut, it was she who incurred the majority of blame.

Perhaps lucky for her, the incident happened a full six years before social media became popular, and though the lack of social media may have been a blessing, in theory with its existence, and hashtag activism such as #stopslutshaming and #EverydaySexism, Lewinsky may have found the support she didn’t receive in 1998.

On the one hand social media amplifies the shaming, making it rapidly visible to the masses but on the flip side, that same visibility allows individuals and organizations to offer their support and advocacy.

Critics might argue that Lewinsky is cashing in on an opportunity by rehashing old news to get attention, timing her reemergence to capitalize on the growing trend of activism against slut-shaming. That’s one way to look at it, but another perhaps more empathetic way is to look past the headlines and look at the girl beneath the veneer. Lewinsky was just a 22-year-old doing what at least 15 percent of women have admitted to doing, according to the Center for Work-Life Policy (and of those, 37 percent claimed a promotion followed). Yet the national scandal that followed became a traumatizing experience, an inescapable shadow until now. As she wrote in her re-emergence debut article in Vanity Fair, she can finally give “her past a purpose.”

As a young girl who was once labeled the school “slut” Emily Lindin can relate on a smaller scale to the shame Lewisnksy has suffered through. In April of 2013 Lindin created the UnSlut Project , which according to their mission statement is “working to undo the dangerous sexual bullying and ‘slut’ shaming in our schools, communities, media and culture.”

By sharing her own story, Lindin has encouraged other girls and women to do the same in a safe non-judgmental environment. While data is hard to come by there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Lindin’s project has had a positive effect.

“Everyday I hear from girls who are suffering from slut shaming—whether it’s online, or on social media or in real life—they have this reputation where people have ostracized them,” says Lindin. “Knowing that they are not alone, reading other peoples stories and knowing it’s an issue people care about helps.”

While the name Monica Lewinsky holds less meaning for today’s preteens, the difference she can make is huge.

“She’s gone through a worldwide sexual shame where everyone knew her name and it was synonymous with being a slut. Knowing that she’s turned that around and made it an empowering thing for her by reclaiming her story is so important for girls to see,” says Lindin. “It allows them to see that if something like that should ever happen to them it doesn’t need to be the end of the world.”

Feminists who wrote about the scandal at the time have changed their minds on the issue. Feminist Erica Jong has even gone on the record with an apology. “If I ever said anything critical about her I’m sorry,” Jong told The Daily Beast, “because women have a tough time when they get famous for anything sexual.”

Lindin believes these kinds of reflective changes illustrate potential for our future. Changing our way of thinking is the first step in defusing sexually derogatory terms aimed at women. “It wasn’t that long ago but so much has changed since then. Sex positive feminism is becoming so much more mainstream versus the anti-sex feminism,” says Lindin, “so I think that’s an indication of large scale cultural change.”

Branded for life, Lewinsky will never live down her past but she can shape a better future from it. Having a name publicly associated with sex creates a lifelong stigma, something adult actresses are keenly aware of. “We wear a scarlet letter when we decide to become an adult film actress or do any kind of sex work,” says renowned porn star Sunny Lane. “We have scarlet letters and we wear them for the rest of our lives.”

Whether an adult actress is currently active or has left the business altogether, society’s judgment never ceases. It’s this utter disregard for our fellow humans and a need to find self-worth by exploiting other people’s insecurities that is so damaging.

Remember, the Internet bullies only have as much power over us as we allow them, and as long as we keep the conversation about female sexual equality alive, we move closer to its realization and further from the shame.

Aurora Snow is a former adult actress and contributor to The Daily Beast.