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A Tale of Two Women, and Two Eras

Why Monica Lewinsky was widely vilified and Stormy Daniels has been praised or ignored

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Twenty years ago, Monica Lewinsky was pilloried throughout the American media for her affair with Bill Clinton. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described her as “a ditsy, predatory White House intern who might have lied under oath for a job at Revlon.” At the New York Observer, distinguished novelists and journalists competed to belittle her. “My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease,” Erica Jong quipped. Asked what will come of Lewinsky, Nancy Friday said, “She can rent out her mouth.” And stand-up comedians had a field day. “Now the latest news reports say Monica Lewinsky has put on 50 pounds,” Jay Leno wisecracked on The Tonight Show. “Did you see that? Fifty pounds. If this keeps up, she may drop to her knees just from the weight.” 

Two decades later, Stormy Daniels finds herself at the center of the biggest presidential sex scandal since Lewinsky, but the similarities end there. Whereas Lewinsky was the victim of bipartisan attacks, Daniels is being celebrated by the left and largely ignored by the right. Most attempts to stigmatize Daniels for her work as a porn star have come from marginal Twitter trolls.

This remarkable difference can be largely attributed to the success of feminist activists who, in the intervening decades, fought against the shaming of women over consensual sex. As a result of that social change, Daniels has emerged as a potent adversary of President Donald Trump, whereas Lewinsky was forced to flee the spotlight.

Lewinsky was a former White House intern when the Clinton scandal erupted, and little able to defend herself from the abuse that was heaped on her by all sides. Because special counsel Ken Starr found no consequential wrongdoing in the Clinton White House, he focused his energies on the lies the president told under oath about his affair with Lewinsky when she was an intern. Using this avenue of attack, Starr went into explicit explorations of Lewinsky’s sex life, which were detailed at length in his report to Congress for all the world to see.

Both Clinton’s supporters and detractors were politically motivated to paint Lewinsky in the worst possible light. To the former, she was a narcissistic sycophant who tarnished the most effective liberal president since Lyndon Johnson. To the latter, she was a tramp who proved the Democratic president’s depravity.

As Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair in 2014, she had become not a person but an archetype: “Me, America’s B.J. Queen. That Intern. That Vixen. Or, in the inescapable phrase of our 42nd president, ‘That Woman.’” This year, Lewinsky wrote for the same magazine, “I’ve lived for such a long time in the House of Gaslight, clinging to my experiences as they unfolded in my 20s and railing against the untruths that painted me as an unstable stalker and Servicer in Chief.” It took her two decades to accept that her affair with Clinton, though consensual, was an abuse of power on his part.

As Lewinsky still struggles to get her side of the story out, Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is in command of her own narrative. In 2006, Daniels allegedly had an affair with Trump, then freshly married to his third wife, who had given birth to Trump’s fifth child, Baron. In 2016, on the cusp of the election, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to sign a nondisclosure agreement, allegedly to prevent her from talking about the affair.

Now, Daniels wants to break that agreement. Trump’s lawyers reportedly are trying to stop CBS’ 60 Minutes from releasing an interview with Daniels. This threat of legal action might be typical Trumpian bluster, but it demonstrates how seriously they’re taking  Daniels. On Monday, Daniels’s own lawyer responded with a letter offering to return the $130,000 if she were allowed to “speak openly and freely about her prior relationship with the president and the attempts to silence her” and “use and publish any text messages, photos and/or videos relating to the president that she may have in her possession, all without fear of retribution and/or legal liability for damages.”

Amid the legal wrangling, Daniels has emerged as confident and bold public voice. Unlike Lewinsky, who was only 24 when the scandal broke and had no experience as a public figure, Daniels is 38 and has worked for almost her entire adult life as either a stripper, porn actress or director. Her career has made her media savvy and almost impossible to shame. “I’ve been in the adult business for 17 years, so to make it that long in that business you have to really tough skin, so most of it rolls off my shoulders because it’s an opinion,” she told CNN.  “Like, oh, you think I’m a whore, or ugly, or too old, or I’m fat or my boobs are too big or too small or whatever. There’s nothing that anyone can say that I haven’t heard. So, they say, ‘Hey, you’re a whore...’ I’m like, ‘That’s ‘successful whore’ to you!’”

Daniels has honed a winning public persona. On Twitter and in interviews, she comes across as grounded, self-aware, and able to laugh at herself.

Daniels’s forthrightness has been enabled by the last generation of feminist activism. Over the last decade, sex-positive feminists have waged a war on “slut-shaming,” and this has changed how sex scandals play out politically. For instance, attempts to tarnish first lady Melania Trump for her past as a semi-nude model, both in the 2016 campaign and after, have fallen flat.

In Rolling Stone, Denver Nicks writes that Daniels is “hated by the right, mocked by the left.” This is not true. The right has been relatively quiet and tame, perhaps for fear that Daniels does indeed have photos or videos that prove her affair with Trump. Breitbart has played its coverage surprisingly straight, while The Federalist has only glancingly touched on the scandal. Fox News, meanwhile, has avoided and downplayed the story.

The reticence of the right might also be motivated by their awareness of Trump’s character. While Clinton’s infidelities were also widely known, it still seemed shocking that so astute a political figure would risk wrecking his presidency on an office fling. With Trump, few will argue that it’s implausible he had an affair with a porn star and paid her hush money. “We all know what Trump is,” Greg Gutfeld said last week on Fox News’ The Five. “That’s why this Stormy Daniels thing doesn’t really resonate with Americans.” He added, “Americans know what they elected. So Donald Trump is attracted to adult film stars. I think that’s not shocking.”

Some conservatives might call liberals hypocrites for championing Daniels when few of them defended Lewinsky. But the difference is less the result of partisanship than the evolution of social mores. It’s no accident that Lewinsky herself is being treated more favorably by liberals in recent years—and that there’s a growing belief on the left that Clinton should have resigned.

“This business about Stormy is not going to go away,” Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters said Sunday on MSNBC. “If for some reason [Robert] Mueller does not get him, Stormy will. So we know that this is going to go on.” Waters is right. Daniels is a formidable foe: smart, tenacious, and unfazed by character attacks. She has a story to tell, and in this #MeToo moment, she has the cultural space to tell it. The sexist stereotypes used to marginalize figures like her are losing their potency. And she just might have those photos.