I’ve been thinking a lot about what is true consent. Working in the field of sexual violence I am faced with what is consent all the time. I deal with cases in which a child is molested, a woman is raped while under the influence or a man is threatened with his life while being sexually assaulted. Consent is discussed and dissected. In these cases it is clear and the law is clear.
I work with both perpetrators and victims of sexual violence, often one in the same. Survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence question consent. It is a common response and reaction amongst victims and perpetrators. Working with both to make sure they understand consent, I often have to define and teach what is true informed consent, similar to a surgeon or anesthesiologist explaining to a patient undergoing surgery the potential risks and benefits of that procedure.
One thing that is very common in treatment is that the survivors of sexual crimes will blame themselves, even when it is very clear that it was not their fault. It is also typical that perpetrators will blame the victims too. When perpetrators cannot accept responsibility for their actions it dynamically shifts the blame onto the victim. The victim therefore, carries the burden of that crime and along with it the shame and humiliation. Part of the therapy is to get very clear about responsibility, shame and consent.
Monica Lewinsky’s article in Vanity Fair in May discusses this very thing, consent, shame and responsibility. Ms. Lewinsky writes a very compelling article. I am left feeling grateful for her candor. She tells us that her relationship with our 42nd president was consensual.
She has me thinking about our culture, our history of blaming the victim, our inability to accept sexual harassment, sexual assault and our definition of consent. She also has me thinking a lot about her shame and humiliation. Perhaps she believes she has given consent, but what is true consent?
True consent means you know you have the right to say no. I wonder whether a 22 year-old intern has the ability to give true consent to what is arguably the most powerful man in the world, certainly the most powerful man in the United States. Did Ms. Lewinsky even know that no was an option. Having the attention and affection of the most powerful man in the world directed at you has to be difficult to resist even for the most mature of women. How could a 22 year-old woman negotiate that attention and affection? Former President, Bill Clinton is known to be very persuasive and charismatic. And what would have happened to Ms. Lewinsky had she rejected the advances of the most powerful man in the country? What would she lose if she said no?
True consent also means that the person understands the possible outcomes of saying yes. Did Ms. Lewinsky truly understand that her life and career could be ruined? In saying yes to the President, did she comprehend the public humiliation and shame she would carry for him? Did she even know at the time that Linda Tripp would tape their private conversations? Did she ever give consent for those private conversations to be taped? Did she understand that the Democrats and Republicans would destroy her in their attempt to gain some political advantage over one another? Did she understand that his administration would destroy her for damage control? Did she comprehend at the time that Hillary Clinton would also condemn her in order to gain some control over this out of control political situation? Did she understand that the “feminists” would degrade her? That the media would devour and consume her?
True consent assumes that you’re not tricked into saying yes. Is the power of the President of the United States not somehow magical influence? How much more power could one have over influencing a very young woman, a mere child, into having sex? How could she resist his charm? How could she not be tricked into believing this was somehow more than just a casual encounter? Even now, sixteen years later she still believes it was a more. What did the Former President say to Ms. Lewinsky?
True consent means you have to be of age or mental ability to say yes. So while Ms. Lewinsky was of legal age to have sex with President Clinton, she was barely legal. Ms. Lewinsky was only twenty-two years old and she was having sex with a forty-nine-year-old man, a man more than twice her age. A man who knew that he would be taking advantage of this young woman should he cross the line and become sexual with her.
And I am left with feeling that the shame she has felt for years is not her shame to carry. She has carried shame for Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and the rest of us. Bill Clinton should have never taken advantage of such a young impressionable woman. He should have respected her boundaries regardless of his sexual attraction to her. He knew what he was doing was wrong. He had been accused of doing this before. He deserves to carry her shame and humiliation. It is his.
Hillary should also carry that shame. Ms. Lewinsky was basically a child. She deserved the protection of a woman who knew what her husband was capable of and had done before. She deserved to stand up for Ms. Lewinsky and tell the nation this was wrong. She even states that it was consensual in Blair’s notes, that there was no power differential. Really? Make no mistake to believe that Ms. Clinton’s documented notes by Blair were given under the pretense that they would be read. Also don’t mistakenly forget that Ms. Clinton is an attorney. How can we expect to advance as women when we violate, exploit, discredit, and slander our young women?
And what about Linda Tripp? So what kind of true consent was given to Ms. Lewinsky at the time Linda was taping their most private conversations? She exploited a “friend.”
And the so-called “feminists” that just degraded the very core of Ms. Lewinsky’s person. Shame on them for ripping apart this young woman. Their words were not only disgusting but also damaging to a whole group of young women growing up at that time. What message are we sending our young women? They deserve to take that shame from Ms. Lewinsky. How could they not stand up for this young woman and tell the nation that this was wrong and illegal? But not only did they not define it for our country to see what this behavior truly is but also they blamed the victim, the oldest trick in the book. They blamed her for the way she looked, the way she dressed, what they perceived as her lack of intelligence, her choice in friends and so much more.
Ms. Lewinsky has almost all the typical effects of a sexual harassment survivor. She was publicly sexualized. She was objectified and humiliated. People even joked about how she wasn’t worthy enough for the Former President. She became the accused. She had decreased work performance and overall decreased career performance. She has lost many career opportunities. She even believes that traditional employment is not an option for her. She had a complete defamation of her character and reputation, everything from her choice of clothing to her intelligence. It still affects her sexual life and relationships with men. She often avoids going out for fear of further public humiliation. She also lies low for years, decades. She has had to relocate numerous times. She has lost references and recommendations. She has lost “friends”. And she has suffered psychological and health effects.
If we are ever to advance as a country, we must demand that the treatment of our women and girls changes. We cannot be silent at the sake of sacrificing our very young impressionable females.