We Were Awful to Monica Lewinsky But We’d Like to Think We’d Act Differently Today

Ms. Lewinsky was quickly cast by the media as a “little tart,” as The Wall Street Journal put it. The New York Post nicknamed her the “Portly Pepperpot.” She was described by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times as “ditsy” and “predatory.”

And other women — self-proclaimed feminists — piled on. “My dental hygienist pointed out she had third-stage gum disease,” said Erica Jong. Betty Friedan dismissed her as “some little twerp.”

“It’s a sexual shaming that is far more directed at women than at men,” Gloria Steinem wrote me in an email, noting that in Ms. Lewinsky’s case, she was also targeted by the “ultraright wing.” “I’m grateful to [her],” Ms. Steinem said, “for having the courage to return to the public eye.”

Had the Lewinsky story unfolded today, certainly the digital reality of it would have been worse (or at least more pungent). “They would have dug up her private photos,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor and the author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.” But there would have also been avenues to push back: more outlets, more varied voices, probably even a #IStandWithMonica hashtag.

“If it happened today, I think the consensus that she deserved to be thrown under the bus would be considerably weaker,” said Clay Shirky, a journalism professor at N.Y.U. who studies Internet culture. “And the key thing that’s changed is not information — there were credible press reports about Cosby for years, just as Clinton’s denial was ridiculous on its face — but the ability to coordinate reaction.”

Jessica Bennett, profiling Monica Lewinsky for the New York Times. Lewinsky has reemerged in the public sphere as of late, reclaiming her story and recasting it as a narrative about the price of shame.

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