In a CBS interview on Sunday, Hillary Clinton stated that her husband Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was not an abuse of power because “she was an adult.” At the time of their involvement, Bill Clinton was 49 years old and the President of the United States; Monica Lewinsky was 22 years old and an unpaid White House intern. Clinton’s statement contradicts Lewinsky herself who, earlier this year, called the affair an abuse of power in an essay she wrote for Vanity Fair, writing, “What transpired between Bill Clinton and myself was not sexual assault, although we now recognize that it constituted a gross abuse of power.”
Since her remarks on Sunday, Hillary Clinton has received criticism on social media from those who say power dynamics encompass a lot more than meeting the legal age of consent. Among those who disagree with her latest comments are survivors and supporters of the #MeToo movement, people who voted for her in 2016, an Obama advisor, and experts on sexual harassment and assault.
“Power imbalances always have the potential to impact consent,” Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, tells Broadly. “This is especially true when the level of power is very apparent because of a person’s formal position of authority. This can impact a sexual partner of any age’s ability to consent.” Dr. Kim S. Ménard, professor of criminal justice and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Penn State and author of Reporting Sexual Assault: A Social Ecology Perspective, explains what that looks like. “The person without power may not feel they can refuse for fear of being terminated, or of losing employment status (e.g., seniority), or employment opportunities (e.g., advancement).”
Dr. Ménard points to the history of the abuse of power in the workplace as evidence of its existence based on position, not only age. “Differences in power dynamics have also long been a concern in labor and industry, where abuses like sexual harassment and rape are more common, especially among the most vulnerable workers (e.g., low-paid hourly, agricultural workers, cleaning and waitstaff, etc.),” she says. “It is precisely because of these forms of abuse that Title VII was enacted to provide victims with some type of legal recourse when abuses occur.”
Monica Lewinsky was not a minor at the time of her affair with Bill Clinton, but she was 27 years younger than him and one of the youngest people working in the White House. “Young people are one of the most vulnerable populations in the workforce when it comes to sexual harassment according to the EEOC,” says Palumbo. “Even if someone is 18, harassment has a significant impact on youth, especially those just starting off in the workforce. In many cases, they are less aware of their rights and legal protections, and they may not have received the same information as full-time employees about workplace policies and trainings.”
Of Clinton’s statement specifically, Dr. Ménard finds her remarks quite harmful. “It negates the experience of many who have been subject to abuses of power,” she says. “For instance, the thousands who came forward as part of the #MeToo movement.”
Clinton, who has continued to stand by her husband through his four sexual misconduct allegations, initially implied that his accusers were lying by stating that their allegations were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced [his run] for president” when they first surfaced in 1998. In her interview on Sunday, Clinton said she played “no role” in criticizing the character of the women who have accused her husband of sexual misconduct. A year into the resurgence of the #MeToo movement—in which the role of power has been a focal point— the stance taken here by Clinton, who’s become a symbol of mainstream feminism, may no longer fit the mold for how many people define sexual abuses of power.