Monica Lewinsky's TED Talk Urged Women Not To Let Their Pasts Define Them

Monica Lewinsky knows who she is. She knows she made a mistake by falling for her boss at the age of 22, and she owns up to it. More importantly, she realizes that she can't let that one mistake define her future and is using that experience as launchpad for greater social change. In a Lewinsky's moving TED talk on Thursday, she urged others to take a stand against online harassment and bullying by turning their backs on the very outlets that encourage and promote cruel behavior, particularly those that provide a platform for intense humiliation.

"For nearly two decades now, we have slowly been sowing the seeds of shame and public humiliation in our cultural soil," said the former White House intern on Thursday. "Gossip websites, paparazzi, reality programming, politics, news outlets and sometimes hackers traffic in shame." With the growing epidemic of bullying and shaming as a "commodity" in today's culture, she said, a very specific "marketplace" has emerged.

"How is the money made? Clicks," she said, lamenting the idea that higher ad revenue often leads to more bullying and humiliation. "We are in a dangerous cycle: the more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it — and the more numb we get, the more we click."

The 41-year-old designer and London School of Economics grad first gained notoriety after a then-scandalous affair with U.S. President Bill Clinton which initially made headlines in January 1998. Previous White House scandals may have made the front page news — maybe even sold a few thousand magazines to new subscribers. But this time around, said Lewinsky on Thursday, things were vastly different.

"This scandal was brought to you by the digital revolution," she said, referring to her involvement with Clinton. "It was the first time traditional news was usurped by the Internet, a click that reverberated around the whole world — overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide."

The criticism was harsh, she pointed out, and it hit her harder than any other previous humiliation might have.

... The attention and judgment that I received — not the story, but that I personally received — was unprecedented. I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo and, of course, "that woman." I was known by many, but actually known by few. I get it. It was easy to forget "that woman" was dimensional and had a soul. In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity. … I lost my sense of self. When this happened to me, 17 years ago, there was no name for it. Now we call it cyber-bullying.
BOB PEARSON/AFP/Getty Images

After years of fleeing to avoid further humiliation, the tragic death of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi was what made her decide to finally step back into the limelight, noted Lewinsky, referring to the student's devastating suicide after days of cyberbullying in 2010. In September of that year, 18-year-old Clementi's roommate had set up a webcam to capture an intimate encounter between Clementi and another man and had secretly broadcast the footage across the internet. After three days of intense humiliation and public shaming, Clementi left a short note on his Facebook page and jumped from the George Washington bridge.

Clementi's suicide was the final straw, said Lewinsky during her TED talk, indicating that her years of hiding in the shadows were over.

"Tyler’s tragic, senseless death was a turning point for me," she recalled. "It served to recontextualize my experiences. I began to look at the world of humiliation and bullying around me and see something different … Every day online, people, especially young people who are not developmentally equipped to handle this, are so abused and humiliated that they can’t imagine living to the next day. ... Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop." So what's her game plan for igniting that monumental shift in priorities? "[Be an] upstander, not a bystander," she said. "Showing empathy to others benefits us all … Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline."

So far, it seems, the internet is attempting to follow her lead and make amends. Lewinsky's TED talk began trending on Twitter as it happened — and this time, the former intern was making the headlines for something much more powerful than a ridiculous blue dress.

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