Power and Consent: The Clinton-Lewinsky Affair Was Not Inherently Abusive

Power dynamics play an important role in attraction and sexual relationships, but power taken too far can result in sexual assault. Hillary Clinton recently stated that her husband Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky from 1995 to 1997 was not, in fact, an abuse of power because both were consenting adults. And she’s right.

Bill Clinton was accused of abusing his position during the affair based on the grounds that there was such a large power difference between him as the President and Lewinsky as a White House intern that Lewinsky’s consent was somehow invalid.

Such a claim paints Clinton as a rapist and implies that power should have no role in sexual relationships. But the fact is, it does. Some find domination attractive and some find submission attractive. Power plays a large part in sex, and it is up to participants to decide whether or not they are okay with engaging in such activities. It is only when one says “no,” or is incapable of saying no, that an act of abuse has taken place.

Lewinsky was 22 at the time. While certainly young, according to American law she was considered old enough to make decisions for herself and explore her sexuality in whatever manner she so chose, which was in a relationship with an older, very powerful man.

“Now, at 44, I’m beginning to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern,” Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair.

Lewinsky, in hindsight, regrets the affair. And that’s precisely my point. One doesn’t often realize the full gravity of a situation until long after their mistakes have been made, with the wisdom and perspective of age. Inherent in exploration is the inevitability of making mistakes, and learning from one’s mistakes is how one grows as a person.

At the time she was perfectly willing to take part in the affair. The fact that she regrets it doesn’t make it possible to revoke consent long after the fact, which is the only way in which Clinton’s actions could be considered abusive. There was simply never any element of harm or forced sexual action between the two.

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, spoke against Hillary’s claims. “You’re talking about an age dynamic,” she said. “But you’re also talking about the President of the United States. The amount of power, the amount of accumulated power that is in that position alone, versus an intern, it’s absolutely an abuse of power.”

While President Clinton’s power certainly played a role in his relationship with Lewinsky, it wasn’t an abusive one. The power differential between the two may have fed each’s primal attraction to the other, but Clinton never used his power to coerce Lewinsky into doing anything she didn’t want to do. He gave her gifts, but never threatened to take something away from her if she refused him. He never offered her the prospect of a higher position as a reward for succumbing to his wishes. He never suggested the possibility of dismissal as a form of punishment or offered career advancement in exchange for what would otherwise be forced sexual activity.

Though indeed, Clinton knew he was partaking in an indulgent and unethical romance. Being a much older man-and a married one at that-he knew that the affair could in no way blossom into a healthy and equal relationship. But again, the affair was never meant to be equal; it was entirely sexual and rash. Acting purely on erotic desire, both Clinton and Lewinsky must have known what they were doing was wrong, but they made the decision to anyways. While power may have played a part in the attraction between the two, we must remember that it was never used by Clinton as a tool to abuse or harm. While both a cheater and a liar, he is no rapist.

Simon Orychiwski is a fourth year Political Science major and English and Literary Journalism minor. He can be reached at sorychiw@uci.edu.