Shame is Good for Us

“…Loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behavior towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

This comes from Mary, the homely, pietistic Bennett daughter in Pride and Prejudice. In the context of the novel’s events, her comment is somewhat less than helpful, but it also rings true. In many ways, all a woman has ever had is her reputation.

It’s not particularly fair that women are subjected to this and men are not. But a wise man once told me that life isn’t fair. And once upon a time, even men were subject to reputation to the extent that they would risk bodily harm in preserving it through duels.

Today, the idea of fighting someone over an idle insult seems rather absurd, but it was a different world then, when everyone knew who you were and what you did, and your reputation was worth defending. There was little to no anonymity in those days; your reputation stuck with you.

So, perhaps in that sense, the dueling world isn’t so different from today’s world, where almost everything can be recorded anytime and once it hits the internet, it’s out there forever.

Miss Lewinsky, of Bill Clinton infamy, has recently come out discussing our current culture of shaming, examining the effect it had on her life. She could, it has been said, be the first victim of cyberbullying, given that the original scandal was broken by The Drudge Report.

Everyone knows who she is and what she did, and who she did it with. Everyone recognizes her. It has been difficult for her to get a job, especially at charities, where she desires to work.

She has undergone years of therapy and for years she has tried to stay out of the limelight, despite constant references to her in rap lyrics and popular culture. For a period following the scandal, her parents made her shower with the door open, fearing she might be suicidal.

“Anybody who has gone through any kind of trauma knows it doesn’t just go away with a snap of the fingers. It lives as an echo in your life. But over time the echo becomes softer and softer,”she said in her recent TED talk, promoting the message that anyone who has suffered shame and public humiliation can survive it.

And that is the trauma that Lewinsky is talking about: the public humiliation for what she did, not what she did.

In a Vanity Fair article of June 2014, she said:

“I , myself, deeply regret what happened between me and President Clinton. Let me say it again: I. Myself. Deeply. Regret. What. Happened. At the time—at least from my point of view—it was an authentic connection, with emotional intimacy, frequent visits, plans made, phone calls and gifts exchanged.

In my early 20s, I was too young to understand the real-life consequences, and too young to see that I would be sacrificed for political expediency. I look back now, shake my head in disbelief, and wonder: what was I—what were we—thinking? I would give anything to go back and rewind the tape.”

What Miss Lewinsky regrets, essentially, is that she and the President were caught. She regrets the consequences of her actions—which she consistently depicts as a consensual relationship, although certainly with a power dynamic involved. The extramarital sex and the fact that she was in an adulterous relationship, are glossed over. She has been shamed, but is not ashamed.

No doubt life since the White House has been very difficult for Miss Lewinsky, and the treatment of Bill Clinton has certainly not been equal–which should raise a certain amount of anger, certainly among feminists. After all, he was cheating on his wife and dishonoring the office of the President (both literally and more metaphorically).

But actions have consequences, and a proper amount of shame attached to certain actions is appropriate, both as a response to the actions and as an incentive not to engage in behavior that would be rightly considered shameful.

Monica Lewinsky, along with countless others, is doing her best to erode healthy shame and cast it under the demonizing banner of bullying. In many ways, she’s succeeding. The New York Times reported that: “…young women were embracing her: rushing up to her after public events, messaging her on social media, asking if they could take selfies.

(‘Meeting her felt like meeting a pop culture icon,’ said Amari Leigh, 17…’It’s crazy to think that one thing she did, when she was not that much older than I am now, impacted her whole life.’)”

There are countless people who unintentionally become public figures, some because of great actions and others because of shameful ones. One can no longer run from one’s reputation with the ubiquitousness of the internet. People can be notoriously cruel and unforgiving.

Yet Monica Lewinsky hardly represents a new or healthy response to that reality of the human experience. Her solution is, most simply, to disassociate shame from promiscuity. If that happens, there will be more Monica Lewinskys. She is saving no one from her fate and working to open the gates for such occurrences to become more common.

Because the true tragedy and trauma that Miss Lewinsky went through has nothing to do with the media response and everything to do with her and Bill Clinton’s actions. And those were shameful indeed.

Virginia Phillips

Author: Virginia Phillips

Virginia Phillips has a M.A. in Religious Studies and an enduring interest in history and politics. In her spare time she writes opinion pieces on current events and theology. She enjoys speculative fiction, martial arts, dancing, and both consuming and preparing food and beverage pairings.

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