Monica Lewinsky was not America's only intern - what do the rest do?

Unpaid and Unequal
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The White House sex scandal has put Monica Lewinsky in the news with many unsavoury appellations - not the least of them "former White House intern". As the nation's most famous intern, Lewinsky is - like the thousands of the other post-teen inhabitants of America's bottom work rung - a paradox of powerlessness and privilege.

Despite the gilded cage in which she is now trapped, I "feel the pain" of the former intern. Or rather, I've felt that pain, as both an intern and a "girl". As an intern (in New York City), I've read out loud the daily newspaper followed by an alphabetised list of phone calls, while my "boss" received his in-office massage. And I've watched others experience far more miserable and hapless bouts doing the middle-class slave labour euphemised as "interning".

President Clinton' s 24-year-old alleged paramour radiates a spoiled sort of vulnerability. In her 1995 White House internship, she was an unpaid assistant serving the Beltway's power elite. Of course, she was also an indulged doctor's daughter, wealthy enough to labour without remuneration. It's the combination of pampered pre-adultness and humiliating insignificance that has contributed to the lack of sympathy for her in the press. Her intern status makes her an even tackier joke, as evidenced in accounts of her adolescent stay at a weight-loss camp and her parents' Southern California divorce settlement which included the cost of her therapy.

According to people who track internships, 75 per cent of interns (ie worker trainees) are college students, and 50 to 60 per cent of them work for nothing. Clean, assured, often bearing degrees from fancy liberal arts colleges, the uncompensated apprentice usually learns, over the course of her (or his) internship, some very important life lessons. Like how to sit still, how to order bottled water, how to kowtow to highers-up and perhaps how to sabotage office culture - which is part of how to navigate it (one intern I know spent his research hours racking up calls to sex services on the company's dime).

I've heard of young women getting asked on dates, in awe of 40-year-old editors with balding pates and a suspicious mastery of the slang of their intern's generation. I've also seen young men quickly exchange their student sycophancy for a more advanced, clean-shaven toadyism.

Lewinsky's legally a woman but she is known as a "girl" by the press. In her case, the link between her appellations "girl" and "ex-intern" are hardly coincidental. The mixture of vulnerability and special attention associated with being both a girl and an unpaid worker trainee has been present in such notorious internship programs as the one at Spin magazine. Last spring, Bob Guccione Jr was found guilty in Manhattan Federal Court of allowing a hostile environment at Spin's offices in the early 1990s. At Spin, he and other editors dated and propositioned interns. "Guccione and other editors saw my client [the magazine's eventual research editor] and other women as girls and not as professionals, even after they were no longer interns but staff members," said Hillary Richard, the attorney for one of the former Spin editors. "With internships, you often have men in positions of power and a complete imbalance of power with their young unpaid female employees." As a safeguard against that imbalance, ABC News has all its interns watch a video about harassment in the workplace. Economic exploitation of interns is more common than boss-to-intern sexual harassment. Intern-tormenting is so common a pursuit, it appears in Scott Adams popular comic strip of office culture, Dilbert.

Yet internship literature, from guidebooks to newspapers, usually presents internships as "learning experiences". There are even pundits who urge young people to go payless, writing tracts such as Bob Weinstein's I'll Work For Free! Interning's ever-increasing popularity is cheered on by magazines that depend on interns to do their grimier research and filing. American glamour industries draw heavily from this pool of free or very cheap labour. MTV "employs" up to 200 at a go. In contrast, The Late Show With David Letterman offers a mere 30 unpaid positions. The Internship Bible, a guide to the subject for prospective trainees, lists more than 100,000 internships. The White House is one of them - according to The Bible there are 1,200 applicants per year for 200 positions. The programme calls for "enthusiastic students" and has an extensive application. White House interns answer correspondence from constituents. Some get to work on the White House Web site.

Uncompensated work is effective at one thing: helping the professional class to reproduce itself. Who else but rich kids can afford to work in stylish companies for nothing? Part of the sweaty bargain of the intern economy is that once the adult paid job is obtained, the intern gets to forget her hours of prior servility. But Monica Lewinsky, the perpetual former intern, will never get to live down this deflating life stage. Let her case bring attention to the decrepitude and worthlessness of internships. Where's the "opportunity" in pouring toner into copiers, of having only youth and good skin on your side when you try to leave the office before seven?

Most of the training the trainee receives is in office power disparities. Of course, some interns do learn a few things - other than that they are not as smart as their professors told them they were, that their fear of the fax machine is uppity, and that in the real world, older men like younger women and will stare at them across a divider. In one internship, I learned I wanted to be a journalist. Some friends received valuable training interning at newspapers.

On the other hand, somewhat ominously, I watched unpaid workers about to be discarded learn to talk of their new institutions in term of "we", as in "We produced that songstresses video." A budding new journalist I know decided against a first-hand experience of her boss and an elaborate, whisky-fuelled night of power and subjection. According to Hillary Abramson, editor of the forthcoming guidebook America's Top Internships, and, as one might imagine, a supporter of the institution, both sexual harassment of interns and boss-trainee dating are uncommon. As for Monica Lewinsky, Abramson says that Lewinsky has simply drawn attention to one of America's top internships. And, adds Abramson: "She's shown that internships do provide you with connections."

The writer is a journalist and former intern in New York City.

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