In this op-ed, features editor Gabrielle Moss explains how Hillary Clinton's comments about Monica Lewinsky and "abuse of power" make it clear how much #MeToo is still misunderstood.
When Hillary Clinton declared on CBS Sunday Morning that Bill Clinton's relationship with then-22-year-old Monica Lewinsky wasn’t an abuse of power because Lewinsky “was an adult” when they were involved, she wasn’t just contradicting Lewinsky herself. Clinton was also showing her alliance to a specific subset of #MeToo movement supporters: those who believe the movement should help bring criminals to justice — but grow cold about the prospect of it changing larger cultural conversations about sex, power, coercion and abuse.
Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair this past March that even though "what transpired between Bill Clinton and myself was not sexual assault...it constituted a gross abuse of power." Clinton disagreed.
You can see this divide play out nearly every time a new allegation against a powerful man comes out. When the alleged behavior is clearly in violation of the law, as it was with Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, condemnations seem to come from every sector. These, commentators seem to uniformly agree, are "real" misdeeds.
But when allegations don’t fit the legal standard for a crime — but still show evidence of an abuse of power — the discussion often changes, tilting away from a critique of the alleged abuser’s behavior, and toward analysis of whether the survivor is a "real victim."
This was in full effect this past January, when a woman known only as Grace alleged that comedian Aziz Ansari pressured her for sex on a date, behaving in ways that made her feel uncomfortable and “violated." Ansari said he was "surprised and concerned" when he found out she felt uncomfortable and "took her words to heart." Meanwhile, The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan pondered why Grace didn’t run away from Ansari, asserting the value of old-fashioned sexual advice that said "if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it." So the woman becomes the wrongdoer, guilty of wasting everyone's time with her complaints.
MeToo also acknowledges that tolerating small acts of sexual misconduct create a larger culture where "actual" sex crimes are more widely tolerated.
Others even claim that allowing for discussion of non-criminal sexual behavior weakens the #MeToo movement. HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield didn’t just minimize Grace’s experience, calling it “at best … unpleasant;” she also claimed that the allegations were damaging the #MeToo movement, saying that Ansari’s accuser "chiseled away at that powerful movement with your public accusation." In these assessments, the only claims we should be spending our time on are criminal ones. Everything else is a distraction, a self-indulgent piece of histrionics that will undermine "real" victims.
Clinton has largely kept mum about the #MeToo movement — she seems to have only mentioned it in an April public appearance, where she said that she felt the movement "was a wave that was building and building and building.” But Clinton’s newest comments about her husband seem to be at odds with comments she made earlier this year when one of her former staffers was fired from a Clinton-supporting super PAC amid sexual harassment accusations. Clinton noted on Twitter, “I was dismayed when it occurred, but was heartened the young woman came forward, was heard, and had her concerns taken seriously and addressed. … I called her today to tell her how proud I am of her and to make sure she knows what all women should: we deserve to be heard.”
It should be noted that Clinton allowed this staffer to continue working for her after allegations were initially made in 2008. In January, after he was fired from she made a statement that she didn't think, at the time, that firing him was the best way to "punish" him.
Her seeming support for #MeToo and the woman who reported her staffer's harassment, paired with her support for her husband and lack of interest in firing her staffer after the initial allegations, feel contradictory. But they make more sense if seen from the viewpoint that #MeToo is about giving women support when they allege that crimes are committed against them — and that anything that falls short of crime is a "gray area" not worth exploring.
#MeToo is more than a call to change legal protocol — it’s a movement to change what behavior is considered acceptable. That's not to say that it won’t have an impact on our laws. Feminist activism often does. Feminist discussions about women's lives led to the 1920 law outlawing spousal abuse and the 1993 ruling that finally made marital rape illegal in all 50 states. Already, #MeToo has been cited in rules placing legal limits on non-disclosure agreements, and extending statutes of limitations on sex crimes — hopefully, this is just the beginning.
But #MeToo also acknowledges that tolerating small acts of sexual misconduct create a larger culture where "actual" sex crimes are more widely tolerated.
I voted for Hillary. I cared about Hillary. And I think she, and Bill, have taken a lot of actions that have improved women’s lives in this country, from getting Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court to showing the world what it looks like when women run for the highest office in the land. I have questions about the question posed to Hillary itself — like, why aren't we only talking to Bill, who has publicly stated that he does not believe he owes Lewinsky an apology? There's a small part of me that wonders why we keep having this conversation.
#MeToo’s major legacy may not end up being legal at all — it may be in our changing cultural standards.
But the central divide here is about just that — whether there is any importance in having these conversations. Tarana Burke, creator of #MeToo, told Paper that the many mainstream conversations that the movement had ignited about sexual violence were important, and that "there's a whole spectrum of what [sexual violence] looks like, and yet, so much of the media's focus is often around sexual harassment in the workplace."
Conversely, this past January, Daphne Merkin wrote in a New York Times op-ed, "What is the difference between harassment and assault and 'inappropriate conduct'? There is a disturbing lack of clarity about the terms being thrown around and a lack of distinction regarding what the spectrum of objectionable behavior really is. Shouldn’t sexual harassment, for instance, imply a degree of hostility?"
The former philosophy suggests that every conversation about abuse is worth having, as it may lead to change and understanding; the latter suggests that if #MeToo addresses issues beyond legal definition sex crimes, it is a foolish overreach, one that will stop the "real," legal progress from occurring.
Treating people poorly, manipulating them, or disregarding their basic humanity is not against the law (anyone who’s spent any time on Twitter can tell you that). But that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss why so many of us think that these behaviors are inviolate rights of the powerful. #MeToo’s major legacy may not end up being legal at all — it may be in our changing cultural standards, our willingness to discuss uncomfortable topics and admit that we and the people we love have not always acted with ethics when it came to issues of sex and power.
Ultimately, how we conceive of consent and power doesn’t begin or end with how Hillary perceives her husband’s sexual behavior. Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky didn’t violate any laws. That’s why #MeToo activists aren’t asking for him to go to jail. But if something isn’t a crime, are we supposed to just ignore it? The people who think so may say they support #MeToo, but they may not be the allies we once thought they were.