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TIME Opinion

Monica Lewinsky and Why the Word ‘Slut’ Is Still So Potent

Monica Lewinsky
Amanda Edwards—WireImage/Getty Images Monica Lewinsky in Los Angeles, Dec. 7, 2014.

Lewinsky was a 22-year-old intern when her affair with Bill Clinton branded her with a ​Scarlet ​L​etter​ S. Nearly two decades later, she's still suffering the repercussions.​ Why is the word slut still so damning?

Slut.

​Tart.

​Whore.

That Woman.

​Those were the word​s​ used to describe Monica Lewinsky, the once 22-year-old intern who had an affair with the President. She is 41 now and speaking ​publicly about the impact of that relationship for the first time. When those words weren’t used to describe her, they were simply known as what defined her.

​Almost two decades later, those are the same words — though slightly updated — used daily to harass, threaten and humiliate young women and girls who deviate from the sexual (and sometimes not-so-sexual at all) norm, both at school and online.

History met the present recently at a Manhattan performance of a play called SLUT, where Monica Lewinsky watched the story of a teen girl who is assaulted, reports it, and is slut-shamed by her peers. I sat next to Lewinsky as she watched the drama play out. At the end, ​she stood up, surveyed the young faces in the audience, and spoke​: ​“Thank you,​” she ​told the crowd, “for standing up against the sexual scapegoating of women and girls.” Afterwards, girls crowded around Lewinsky to express their own gratitude for her outspokenness.

The Lewinksy scandal broke in in 1998. ​SLUT the play takes place today. In between, the word has been used by Rush Limbaugh to discredit Sandra Fluke a law student who spoke up for birth control; to debate the validity of sexual assault claims; and more often than one could count, to talk viciously about women on the Internet. (Just this week, Ashley Judd proclaimed she would sue her slut-shaming harassers on Twitter.)

What is it about the word slut that is still so potent?

​Slut didn’t begin as a bad word — or a word for women at all — but merely an “untidy” one. Chaucer (yes, that Chaucer) put it in print in the early 1300s, referring to a sloppy male character as “sluttish” in The Canterbury Tales.

But if the word was used for men more broadly it was only for a second: by the 1400s, it had morphed into a term for maids and unkempt, dirty women (like actually dirty, not sexually dirty). It wasn’t long before that notion was infused with sexual connotations. Today, the term is defined by Oxford Dictionary as a woman who “has many casual sexual partners” or one with “low standards of cleanliness” — though it’s clear that in our modern lexicon, those two might as well be one and the same.

Sure, there have been positive usages or attempts to take slut back: Kathleen Hanna famously scrawled the word across her stomach while on stage with Riot Grrrl in the 90s; there is the SlutWalk movement, an effort to reclaim the word.

But by and large one definition remains: Slut is loaded. Slut is bad. Much in the way that Lewinsky became a kind of public symbol, said the linguist Robin Lakoff, “​of all that is sexually loathsome and scary about women,” ​the word slut — and its linguistic sisters, ho, whore, tramp, and skank — is a stand-in for the same: used to describe women who deviate from the norm.

“Girls are still targeted when they cross some kind of boundary,” said Eliza Price, ​a ​16​-year-old cast member in the SLUT play, which is produced by an all-girl theater group called the Arts Effect. ​​

But that boundary can almost anything: clothing, behavior, attitude or something else. As a group of Mississippi teens described it to the author Rachel Simmons, in her book, Odd Girl Out, a girl can be a slut — or in this particular interview, a “skank” — if she sits with her legs open, wears baggy clothes, wears tight clothes, talks in slang, gets into fights, or shows too much PDA. “In other words: almost anything,” said Simmons. “‘Slut’ and its cousin ‘skank’ are used to denote girls who take up space and break the good girl rules.”

And sometimes that has nothing to do with sex. Leora Tanenbaum, the author of a new book, I Am Not a Slut, has interviewed girls and women who’ve been labeled with the word — coining, in 1999, the term “slut-bashing,” which would later evolve into “slut-shaming.” But being called a slut, she found, actually had little to do with whether or not these girls were sexually active. Rather, anybody could be called a slut, she said. The word was a catch-all to discredit women; for young women, it was a way to define them before they got the chance to define themselves.

And while words like bitch have an action associated with them — i.e., if you change your behavior you might be able to shed the label — the word slut is forever.

“Once you’re labeled a slut, it’s pretty much impossible to rid yourself of it,” explains Winnifred Bonjean-Alpart, 17, the lead actress in the play and a high school student in New York. As another young actress explained it: You can be valedictorian, class president and prom queen, but if more than one person calls you slut, all that gets wiped away.

And the Internet makes that even more the case. “In the 90s, when girls would come to me and say ‘I’m the slut in my school and I can’t bear it, what should I do?’ One of the things I would say is ‘Have you looked into transferring to another school?’” said Tanenbaum. “But you can’t say that anymore, because her reputation is going to follow her. You can’t go off the grid.”

The way slut as epithet plays out is multifold:

It’s the reason young women are so obsessed with their “number”— how many sexual partners they’ve had. It might explain why some women lie to their healthcare providers about those numbers, even when it’s not in their best interest.

It’s the reason why, on more than one occasion, as a young woman I would say “no” when I really wanted to say “yes”: yes, of course, would be considered slutty. (You can imagine how that plays into the complicated conversation we’re now having about consent.)

In one case that Tanenbaum describes, a young college woman believed that being called slut contributed to the reason she was raped. “He must have thought, ‘Well, she sleeps around all the time, so she’ll say yes to me,’” the woman told her.

In Monica Lewinsky’s case, that label is the reason she still can’t find work, and has largely stayed out of the public eye for close to a decade. As she said in her TED talk this past week, “It was easy to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken.”

Back in 1998, Lewinsky was condemned by the left and the right, by men and women alike, even self-proclaimed feminists (including the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whose columns on the scandal of President Clinton’s affair and “slutty” Monica Lewinsky won a Pulitzer Prize). Today Lewinsky would be likely to have defenders: there are simply more avenues to push back against a singular media narrative; and we have a new language with which to talk about it.

But the word still has the power to wound, diminish and discredit — as so many victims of sexual assault can attest. Which begs the question: Instead of discrediting women, can we simply discredit the word?

Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at Time.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. She writes regularly for the New York Times and is a contributing editor on special projects for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s nonprofit, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

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TIME 2016 Election

Hillary Clinton Recalls Irish Peace Process in Pre-St. Patrick’s Day Event

Hillary Clinton Holds Press Conference Over Email Controversy
Yana Paskova—Getty Images Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the media after keynoting a Women's Empowerment Event at the United Nations on March 10, 2015 in New York City.

She recalled her husband's role in the peace process

Hillary Clinton talked about how her husband improved relations with Ireland at a pre-St. Patrick’s Day event Monday, recalling how he granted Irish nationalist Gerry Adams a visa in 1994.

In a brief speech at the Irish America Hall of Fame ceremony in Manhattan, the former Secretary of State said that President Clinton’s decision to allow Adams to speak at a conference in New York, which many American opposed, was an important first step toward peace in Ireland since it helped end Sinn Fein’s international isolation.

“Absent that first step, that first risk, we might not have had the momentum to move forward and get to the Good Friday accords and all that has followed,” Clinton said.

She recalled her own involvement in the peace process in Ireland, where she visited half a dozen times in the late 1990s and encouraged women to join the political process of Northern Ireland. “I was privileged to be in Belfast in November 1995,” Clinton said, referring to a visit she paid to the embattled Irish city with her husband.

Her address was one of her final public appearances before she announces her expected bid for president in April. She is also speaking at a paid event Thursday in Atlantic City at an American Camp Association conference.

TIME Media

34 TIME Magazine Covers That Appeared to Give People Horns

Hillary Clinton joins Pope Francis, one large animal and many others who have appeared on the magazine's front with the eyebrow raising features

There was some hubbub online Thursday over TIME’s latest cover, which appeared to show Hillary Clinton sporting a set of horns. (This sort of thing has happened before.) Given the shape of the letter “m” in the magazine’s name and its location on the cover, many other subjects in the past have also appeared to sprout extra features (in fact this happened to Hillary Clinton at least once before. Same goes for Bill Clinton. George W. Bush too). Check out everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Pope Francis to Jesus to Darth Vader who have received the rough end of TIME’s “horns.” Any resemblance to cats, bats or devil horns is entirely coincidental.

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TIME 2016 Election

Bill Clinton Addresses Charity’s Donor Controversy in Hillary’s Stead

<> on March 7, 2015 in Coral Gables, Florida.
Joe Raedle—2015 Getty Images Hillary Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting at the University of Miami on March 7, 2015.

The 42nd president answered questions about his family's charity, while Hillary introduced a new philanthropic initiative

Likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton avoided any mention Saturday night of the political controversy sparked by donations to her family foundation from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others with business before the State Department during her time in the Obama Administration. Instead, at a foundation event in the University of Miami, she left that work to her husband.

“We do get money from other countries, and some of them are in the Middle East,” former President Bill Clinton said, after being prompted on stage in a question and answer session. “The United Arab Emirates gave us money, do we agree with everything they do? No, but they’re helping us fight ISIS and they helped build a university with NYU. . . . My theory about all this is, disclose everything, and let people make their judgments.”

“I have a lot of people who help me but who never voted for me,” Clinton continued. “We ought to bring people together across great divides around things that they can agree on and find something to do to make peoples lives better.”

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton lobbied for the interests abroad of corporations like Walmart and General Electric that also gave to her family’s charity. The Clinton foundation also has accepted donations from foreign governments. Unlike most charities, the Clinton Foundation publicly discloses a list of all its donors.

Hillary, meanwhile, devoted her joint discussion with her daughter, Chelsea, to the work the foundation is doing, instead of the questions surrounding it. She announced the “No Ceilings” project, an advocacy and data repository intended to encourage gender equality around the world.

“This is a global data project that measures the gains that women and girls have made around the world in the last 20 years, but also identify the gaps that remain,” said the former Secretary of State. “Whether it’s women’s rights or civil rights or LGBT rights, we’re counting on you to lead the way, and that’s what the No Ceilings initiative is really all about.”

The packed gathering of volunteer-minded students was a friendly audience, and they gave Hillary a standing ovation as she entered. All day a relentless loop of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” heralded speakers onstage.

It was the culmination of a three-day event hosted by the Clinton Foundation called the Clinton Global Initiative University, an incubator of sorts for student volunteers and activists who have committed to address jaundice in India and nutrition in West Philadelphia.

“We couldn’t think of a better audience to be the first to share this data with, because a lot of the changes that we need to make to build a future is the work of every one of you,” Hillary Clinton said, before turning the focus on continued problems in the United States.

“Even in wealthier countries like our own, it really makes a difference as to your economic status whether or not you are going to be able to participate fully, get the healthcare we need—although we’ve made a lot of progress on that—and get the education we need, though it needs to be more affordable,” she said. “We have seen progress everywhere, but we have also seen concerted efforts to stop that progress or even turn it back in too many places.”

The Clinton Foundation owes much of its success and its billions in funding to the Clinton name, and to Bill and Hillary’s deep web of political and business connections. For the Clintons, politics and philanthropy make temperamental bedfellows. In his remarks, Bill addressed the questions critics have posed of his wife.

“I believe we’ve done a lot more good than harm,” he said of his family’s charity. “So I’m going to tell you who gave us the money, and you can make your own decisions.”

TIME 2016 Election

Chelsea Clinton Grabs The Spotlight at Family Foundation Miami Meeting

Clinton Global Initiative University - Fast Forward: Accelerating Opportunity For All
Johnny Louis—WireImage Vice Chair of Clinton Foundation Chelsea Clinton attends Clinton Global Initiative University - Fast Forward: Accelerating Opportunity for All at University of Miami on March 6, 2015 in Miami, Florida.

A former first daughter takes the reins at her family's Foundation event

When the introductory music stopped Friday night at the Clinton Foundation’s latest meeting Friday, the star who took the stage in Miami before a hundreds of young activists wasn’t a former president, governor, senator or secretary of state. Rather it was Chelsea Clinton, the daughter who had watched her parents inhabit all of those roles, ready to claim her own moment in the spotlight. “All sorts of sounds are very welcome,” she told the crowd to hoots and cheers. “Interactive is what we love.”

Former President Bill Clinton still might be the biggest draw at the Clinton Foundation, and Hillary Clinton is certainly the most talked about, as she prepares a second campaign for the White House. But at the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting, Chelsea Clinton took the lead role, playing host, judge, motivational speaker and master of ceremonies through much of the first day. While her father was scheduled to host four of the weekend’s sessions, Chelsea was scheduled to take five. On a cleared-out University of Miami basketball court, where bleachers and ballers had given way to a sea of students and green chairs, she was playing point guard. About 1,100 students from more than 80 countries came to listen to panels and learn how to organize their own aid projects, and the sitting area was packed. She told crowd that she hoped they would come to all the speaker sessions—“not just the ones where my dad will be on stage.” The students cheered in response.

“She makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room,” Nick Pugh, a 19-year-old American student studying at the University of Edinburgh, said of the 35-year-old on stage. “And in that way she reminds me of her father.”

Chelsea played an active role in Hillary’s 2008 campaign, giving stump speeches and question-and-answer sessions on colleges campuses across the country. Seven years later, after a stint as an on-air correspondent at NBC News, Chelsea, now 35, is a far more experienced speaker with a penchant for connecting with young crowds, a skill that could come in handy in the upcoming race, particularly with a mother who has often struggled to engage personally with audiences. Her ubiquity at the sun-soaked campus at the University of Miami over the weekend reflected the new role she is playing in the philanthropic endeavors her father began in 14 years ago. She became vice chair in 2013, the same year the charity was renamed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

Her opening remarks ran just 10 minutes, and it was her father who got a standing ovation among this activist-minded crowd when he later appears on stage. But she ran the show at an earlier, smaller event in the glass-sheathed student center hours earlier, where Chelsea judged a so-called Codeathon from a sunlit room on the building’s top floor, as students nursed cups of beer nearby. She was plainly excited: students had been working on apps like “SeaZar,” which would crowd source data on coral reefs’ health status from smartphone-wielding diving instructors, and “Tik,” which aims to educate mothers in rural Mexico on nutrition. Most of the presenters were younger than 25, and they had come from London and North Dakota for this Chelsea-organized event.

Chelsea sat at the judge’s table, taking notes notes between sips of San Pellegrino seltzer, dabbing celery into a hummus dip as she listened. Young attendees said later they were won over by her pragmatic questions: How do you actually incentivize dive shops to take part in SeaZar’s coral reef data collection? Where’s the funding for that quit-smoking app going to come from? She told students she loved math, and mentioned her own motherhood several times; her daughter, Charlotte, was born in September. “I believe mothers will do anything and everything for their children, and that’s a universal unimpeachable truth around the world,” Chelsea said.

Left unspoken was the question that Chelsea will soon need to answer for the world. Are children willing to do the same for their mothers, especially when they run for the highest office in the land?

TIME White House

Bill Clinton’s Portrait Includes Symbolic Nod to Lewinsky Affair

Former President Bill Clinton gestures after the portraits of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton and him, were revealed on April 24, 2006 at the Smithsonian Castle Building in Washington D.C.
Haraz N. Ghanbari—AP Former President Bill Clinton gestures after the portraits of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton and him, were revealed on April 24, 2006, at the Smithsonian Castle Building in Washington, D.C.

The artist who created the portrait of President Clinton that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery admitted he sneaked a subtle reference to the Lewinsky scandal into the background of the painting. The shadow is "a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held"

The artist who created the portrait of President Bill Clinton that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery has admitted he sneaked a subtle reference to the Lewinsky scandal into the background of the painting.

Painter Nelson Shanks told the Philadelphia Daily News on Friday that a shadow in the 2006 painting, which can be seen falling on the mantle of the Oval Office fireplace, was more than it appeared:

“It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there,” Shanks said. “It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.”

Shanks claimed that the Clintons “hate” the painting and have lobbied for its removal from the National Portrait Gallery, a claim the museum’s spokesperson denied.

Read more at the Philadelphia Daily News.

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See Hillary Clinton’s Evolution in 20 Photos

From First Lady to Senator to Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton continues to conquer the public spotlight 

TIME Music

10 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Won Grammys

Who said you had to be a pop star to win a Grammy?

  • LeVar Burton

    The 42nd Annual GRAMMY Awards
    J. Vespa—WireImage/Getty Images

    Best Spoken Word Album, 2000:

    The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Lewis Black

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    John Shearer—WireImage/Getty Images

    Best Comedy Album, 2011:

    Stark Raving Black

    Best Comedy Album, 2007:

    The Carnegie Hall Performance

  • Zach Braff

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    Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media, 2005:

    Garden State

  • Chris Rock

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    Best Comedy Album, 2000:

    Bigger & Blacker

    Best Comedy Album, 1998:

    Roll with the New

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    Best Comedy Album, 2014:

    Calm Down Gurrl

TIME Crime

U.S. Lawyers Seek to Interview Prince Andrew About Sex-Crime Claims

Prince Andrew, Duke of York, visits Georg August University in Goettingen, Germany on June 3, 2014.
Swen Pförtner—AP Prince Andrew, Duke of York, visits Georg August University in Göttingen, Germany, on June 3, 2014

Lawyers move forward with legal discovery in a sex scandal that spans the Atlantic Ocean

American lawyers for a woman who claims to have been trafficked for sex with Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, have asked Queen Elizabeth’s second son to answer the charges in an interview under oath.

Lawyers Paul Cassell and Bradley Edwards, who represent a woman who alleges she was kept as an underage “sex slave” by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, sent the formal request on Jan. 14 through their own attorney. In it, they ask to discuss what happened “at the time … and shortly thereafter” a widely circulated photo from 2001 was taken. The photograph shows Prince Andrew with his arm wrapped around the bare midriff of Virginia Roberts, the self-described “sex slave,” who is identified in court documents as Jane Doe No. 3.

Epstein, a financier who has recently split his time between New York and Palm Beach, Fla., settled the criminal case against him in 2008 by cutting a deal with federal prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to two Florida state crimes, registered as a sex offender, served a short jail term and agreed to assist financially his alleged victims in filing civil lawsuits against him. The case has been kept alive since then through those civil cases, and through a federal lawsuit by Cassell and Edwards that alleges the prosecutors violated the victims’ rights in their handling of the case.

The newest documents, filed Wednesday in federal court in the Southern District of Florida, reveal further details about the allegations in the tangled legal case. In one new filing, Roberts says that she has not disclosed all the information that she has about sexual encounters she claims to have had with other powerful men, including politicians, because she is “very fearful of these men.” But she adds, “If a judge wants me to present my information in more detail, including more specific descriptions of the sexual activities with the men Epstein sent me to, I could do so.”

At a separate point in the document, Roberts clarifies past statements about her alleged encounters with former President Bill Clinton at a Caribbean retreat owned by Epstein. “Bill Clinton was present on the island at the time I was also present on the island, but I have never had sexual relations with Clinton, nor have I ever claimed to have had such relations,” she says in the document. “I have never seen him have sexual relations with anyone.”

Edwards, one of the attorneys for Roberts, says in another filing that he previously sought to depose Clinton about his knowledge of illegal activity by Epstein and his accomplices. “The flight logs showed Clinton traveling on Epstein’s plane on numerous occasions between 2002 and 2005,” Edwards writes.

In her own sworn statement, Roberts repeats the claim that she was forced into sexual encounters with both Prince Andrew and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, a friend and attorney for Epstein. Buckingham Palace has denied that Prince Andrew had “any form of sexual contact or relationship” with the woman, saying in a previously released statement that her claims are “categorically untrue.” Dershowitz also denied the claims, and has filed legal actions against Cassell and Edwards for allowing the accusations to show up in legal filings, prompting Cassell and Edwards to countersue Dershowitz for defamation. A representative for Epstein has dismissed Roberts’ claims as old and discredited.

“I had sex with him three times, including one orgy,” Roberts says in the affidavit, describing her alleged encounters with Prince Andrew. “I knew he was a member of the British Royal Family, but I just called him ‘Andy.’”

In her affidavit, Roberts says, “I have seen Buckingham Palace’s recent ‘emphatic’ denial that Prince Andrew had sexual contact with me. That denial is false and hurtful to me. I did have sexual contact with him as I have described here — under oath.”

She asked that the Prince “simply voluntarily tell the truth about everything” and agree to be interviewed by her lawyers under oath.

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