Watch Monica Lewinsky's TED talk

I remember the day I turned 22. It was 1997. I had just arrived in Calgary with my then-roommate, there for no reason other than I had recently graduated from university and had lived in Winnipeg my whole life up to that point.

That afternoon, her brother and his friends helped us move into our fourth-floor apartment on 14th St., just up the hill from 17th Ave. There was no elevator.

While we lugged boxes up the stairs, they tied ropes around our couch and dressers and hoisted them through the air to our balcony. Then we drank some beer and coolers.

That night, as it got dark, I took my ghetto-blaster onto the balcony – yes, I owned a ghetto-blaster back then – and took in the skyline. I could see thousands of lights. Off to the right was the Calgary tower.

I played Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac because it seemed thematically appropriate. I felt cool and grown-up and wondered what Calgary had in store for me. (Spoiler: relative poverty and the beginning of a 10-year career in retail clothing sales.)

When Monica Lewinsky was 22, it was 1996. She had just graduated from college and was working as an intern at the White House. She fell in love with her boss, Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States of America, and the two began an affair.

Two years later, in 1998, that affair became public knowledge and Monica Lewinsky found herself at the centre of a scandal.

Or, as she articulates it in a TED talk taped this month in Vancouver:

“Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one – worldwide. I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.”

Lewisky’s talk is titled The Price of Shame and has already been viewed more than two million times. In a way, it’s a companion piece to an essay she wrote for Vanity Fair last June.

She uses both venues to talk about her experience and how what happened to her was a harbinger of things to come.

I know this will be hard for you younger readers to wrap your heads around but, in 1998, information was disseminated and consumed in a very different, very limited way. The landscape was nothing like today.

Media hadn’t fragmented into a never-ending selection of siloed sub-genres (as Lewinsky correctly points out, just a few years before then, news was consumed in one of only three ways: reading a newspaper, listening to the radio or watching TV).

The Internet was still kind of a new thing; no one really knew what to make of it or how to use it. Blogs were a novelty. There were no smartphones, certainly no smartphone cameras. Social media didn’t exist.

Paparazzi was around and discussions of invasion of privacy had made it onto the public radar, no doubt helped along by Princess Diana’s 1997 death. Still, such discussions were, for the most part, focused on the cult of celebrity.

‘Normal,’ ‘regular’ people being the focus of global scrutiny and/or mockery remained an uncommon occurrence with a few noteworthy exceptions: Baby Jessica falling into the well in 1987; and Rodney King getting the shit kicked out of him by cops in 1991.

In 1998, ‘cyber-bullying’ wasn’t a word. Neither was ‘slut-shaming.’ Monica Lewinsky experienced both on a level that was almost unheard of at the time.

I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to American politics back in 1998 but I remember the scandal. You couldn’t not know about it; the salacious details made for great water-cooler gossip.

I remember SNL doing some off-colour skit that made everyone titter. I remember a lot of crass jokes about blowjobs and a spooge-stained blue dress. I remember people talking about how odd it was that Bill Clinton would want to have an affair with someone so chubby. I remember people dressing up as Monica Lewinsky for Halloween.

I remember having a few conversations in which I pointed out that if anyone was deserving of blame and/or shame in this situation, it was the rich, powerful, charming, older, married man who used his considerable privilege to woo a 22-year-old nobody of an intern into a sexual relationship and then, when caught, could barely bring himself to acknowledge that she existed.

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

I remember being disappointed that Hillary didn’t kick Bill’s ass to the curb.

I was a nobody back then, too. (Still am, really.) I didn’t have a blog, didn’t write for an alt-weekly. Lewinsky writes about feeling unsupported by the public feminists of the day. Today, I feel bad that no one had her back. Sorry that her trauma predated the rise of Internet feminism.

Monica Lewinsky has stated, repeatedly, that her relationship with Bill Clinton was 100% consensual. And, while I would suggest that consent from both parties does not negate the grossly disproportionate power dynamics which undoubtedly were at play in this particular relationship (he being the FUCKING PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES and all), it’s important to remember that 22-year-olds have agency.

Her affair didn’t make Monica Lewinsky a victim. We did.

“The attention and judgment that I received – not the story, but that I, personally received – was unprecedented,” she says in her TED talk.

“We have created, to borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, a ‘culture of humiliation’ that not only encourages and revels in Schadenfreude but also rewards those who humiliate others, from the ranks of the paparazzi to the gossip bloggers, the late-night comedians, and the Web ‘entrepreneurs’ who profit from clandestine videos,” she writes in Vanity Fair.

“Having lived humiliation in the most intimate possible way, I marvel at how willingly we have all signed on to this new way of being.”

On March 3, 1999, Lewinsky gave a televised interview to Barbara Walters on 20/20. Reportedly, some 70 million people watched it – a record for a news show.

Back in Winnipeg by that time, I was working at Club Monaco. We became inundated with requests for Glaze, a lipstick shade that was part of the chain’s cosmetic line. The reason? Monica Lewinsky had worn it during the interview.

Across North America, stores couldn’t keep up with the demand. People, it seemed, were obsessed with it. (From that last link: “I wanted Monica’s mouth or no mouth at all.”)

Waiting lists were created and, when we did get more in, we used the Monica Lewinsky connection to sell it to people who weren’t yet aware such a connection existed.

Out of earshot of our customers, we made dirty jokes about the reasons why women would want their lips to look like Monica Lewinsky’s.

Feminist or not, I was as guilty as the rest of the world.

Seventeen years later, now 41, Monica Lewinsky has emerged from the annals of pop-culture notoriety to recontextualize her past, reclaim her narrative and remind us of the personal price of public humiliation.

She does a good job connecting the dots. Her TED is on point and, at times, heartbreaking.

Lewinsky relates her experience to our culture today, in which public shaming has become, in her words, “a bloodsport.”

She talks about Tyler Clementi, and how his death – a suicide after webcam footage of him being intimate with another man was taped without his knowledge and shared online – was a turning point for her. She could have easily been speaking of a number of other people, most of them young, who chose death as a way out.

She asks for a revolution. For empathy and compassion. For an end to online harassment and sexual bullying.

She speaks from experience as a survivor and her words carry weight because of it.