Monica Lewinsky has broken a decade-long silence to announce her campaign to end cyberbullying and today’s toxic culture of internet shaming.
In her first ever public address, the former mistress of President Bill Clinton revealed her plan to launch a “cultural revolution” against the sort of online harassment she experienced firsthand in the late 1990s.
"I was Patient Zero," said Lewinsky, now 41, to an auditorium full of 1,000-plus high-achieving millennials at Forbes’ inaugural 30 Under 30 summit in Philadelphia. “The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet.”
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"There was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram back then,” she said. “But there were gossip, news and entertainment websites replete with comment sections and emails which could be forwarded. Of course, it was all done on the excruciatingly slow dial up. Yet around the world this story went. A viral phenomenon that, you could argue, was the first moment of truly ‘social media’.”
Lewinsky described her life since the 1998 sex scandal that resulted in Bill Clinton’s impeachment as one marred by a deep sense of shame and even suicidal thoughts.
She became emotional telling of the miserable months after then-unknown gossip website the Drudge Report broke the news of her relationship with Clinton — a public humiliation exacerbated by the release of the Starr Report online later that year, offering intimate details of their trysts.
"Staring at the computer screen, I spent the day shouting: ‘oh my god!’ and ‘I can’t believe they put that in’ or ‘That’s so out of context,’” she said. “And those were the only thoughts that interrupted a relentless mantra in my head: ‘I want to die.’”
In the immediate aftermath of the Clinton saga, Lewinsky tried to capitalize on her notoriety, first designing handbags and then hosting a reality dating show. She moved to the U.K., where she attended the London School of Economics and got a master’s degree in social psychology. Still, nothing could remove the specter of her public shaming.
It was only years later in 2010 when she read of the tragic suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi that Lewinsky stumbled on what she now sees as a calling.
Clementi’s college roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man in their dorm room and streamed the video via webcam. Derided and ridiculed online, the 18-year-old jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death.
“That tragedy is one of the principal reasons I am standing up here today,” said Lewinsky. “While it touched us both, my mother was unusually upset by the story, and I wondered why. Eventually it dawned on me: she was back in 1998, back to a time when I was periodically suicidal; when she might very easily have lost me; when I, too, might have been humiliated to death.”
Lewinsky met with Clementi’s parents, who set up the Tyler Clementi Foundation for vulnerable youth, LGBT youth and their allies. She intends to share her story with victims of cyberbullying and online harassment. There are many of them: almost 54% of young Facebook users describe being bullied or harassed online. The recent web hacks that exposed nude photos of A-list celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence serve as a reminder that no one is immune.
"Having survived myself, what I want to do now is help other victims of the shame game survive, too,” she said. “I want to put my suffering to good use and give purpose to my past.”
Follow Lewinsky’s plans on Twitter, at her brand new handle: @MonicaLewinsky.