Conservative media and online trolls have succeeded in driving a US congresswoman from office. But while Rep. Katie Hill’s career is the initial casualty of a smear campaign by far right pundits, she isn’t their ultimate target — and sadly, their campaign is far from over. The targeting of Rep. Hill and her subsequent resignation are meant as a warning shot to young women across America: if you run for office and challenge the status quo, we will destroy you, too. While Hill’s resignation does little to change the vote calculus of the House, her public downfall could change everything about the mental calculus of whether to run for office for young women across America.
Rep. Katie Hill, D-California, announced her resignation Sunday evening, following the publication of a nude image of Hill by conservative website RedState and an announcement Wednesday that the House Committee on Ethics announced it was opening an investigation into allegations that she engaged in an improper relationship with a House staffer in possible violation of House rules. Hill denied that relationship alleged by the conservative blog, and indicated that the photos — which may amount to revenge porn, which is illegal in California — were published without her consent as part of an abusive campaign being waged against Hill by her soon-to-be ex-husband. In her resignation letter, Hill made clear that she will focus on fighting against revenge porn when she leaves office. She has called what happened to her “electronic assault.” CNN has reached out to Hill’s husband for comment but has not heard back. Hill has given no evidence connecting her husband to the circulation of the photo.
Much of the conversation surrounding Hill over the past week has focused on allegations made by Hill against her estranged husband, Kenny Heslep. Hill, one of the first members of Congress who identifies as bisexual, has admitted to having had a consensual relationship with a woman who worked on her congressional campaign, which some have characterized as a “throuple” involving the 32-year-old congresswoman, her estranged husband and the 26-year-old campaign staffer. In a letter to supporters Wednesday, Hill acknowledged the relationship, saying that it happened “during the final tumultuous years of (an) abusive marriage” and characterized the relationship, while consensual, as “inappropriate.” Heslep has not responded to requests for comment from multiple media outlets.
No one could argue that Hill’s actions with the campaign staffer demonstrated good judgment, were professional, or even ethical. Having an affair with a subordinate, regardless of where that person works, is wrong. But what has been done to her over the past week — the nonconsensual release of nude images of herself — is against the law in many places. As of October 2019, 46 states, along with the District of Columbia and Guam, have enacted laws against revenge porn.
Those who have participated in the smear campaign or helped spread Hill’s nude image without her consent would likely point to exceptions in both DC and California’s laws for images “in the public interest.” But therein lies the larger and historical issue: no matter how much we may feel to the contrary, we the public are not owed a woman’s most private moments, no matter how public that woman’s life may be. However “interesting” we may find humiliating women in possession of their own sexual autonomy, it is not “in our interest” to be given domain over the naked body of a woman without her consent.
The public humiliation of Rep. Hill is unprecedented. While Hill isn’t the first member of Congress to be the victim of nonconsensual pornography, her swift resignation from office after admitting solely to consensual sexual activity with another adult also stands in stark contrast to the scandals of male politicians that came before her.
In 2011, the infamous Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-New York, accidentally shared an explicit photograph of himself, followed by the publishing of more photos of Weiner by Breitbart, none of which were explicit. Weiner, who was married at the time, admitted to exchanging explicit messages while in office with at least six women, held on to his congressional seat for an additional month, and went on to run for mayor of New York City in 2013. He has since admitted to sending explicit text messages to an underage girl and is now a registered sex offender.
In 2017, an anonymous Twitter account published an explicit selfie taken by former congressman Joe Barton, R-Texas, but while the existence of the image was reported on, no editorial decision was ever made to publish the image itself. Barton chose not to run for reelection in 2018 but remained in office for 14 more months, finishing out his term in January of 2019.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, was indicted in August of 2018 on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, and violating campaign finance laws after allegedly using campaign funds to finance affairs with at least three lobbyists and two Republican congressional staffers. Hunter’s wife pleaded guilty for her role in the scheme and is awaiting sentencing. Hunter remains in office today, more than three years since the initial ethics complaint was filed against him. Hunter’s lawyers argued that “however unpopular the notion of a married man mixing business with pleasure,” the relationship Hunter had with the women “served an overtly political purpose.” Hunter himself first denied wrongdoing and shifted blame to his wife, and later asserted that he and his wife were being targeted by the Justice Department for political reasons.
Revenge porn, an increasingly prevalent tool in the misogynist’s toolbelt, is meant to humiliate and demean its victim, taking away her (in nearly every case, the victim is a her) very status of “victim” in the public’s eye. If she didn’t want her image to be shared, the misogynistic logic goes, why did she allow the photo to be taken in the first place? Little to no blame is ever placed on the man (because it’s nearly always a man) who has violated her privacy and trust by making the image public. It seems that very act of appearing in an intimate photo is enough for us to declare a woman as undeserving of privacy, sympathy, belief, or yes, public office.
While Hill is a member of the Democratic Party and the pundits smearing her are largely conservative, this issue shouldn’t be diminished as one of Democrats vs. Republicans. While Hill’s attackers have succeeded in painting her as unfit for office, their goal appears to be to remind society that a woman in charge of her sexuality is a threat to the status quo, and must be destroyed. It only benefits men in power to send the message to women that if they choose to run for office, how they choose to express their sexual autonomy will be subject to surveillance and punishment to a greater extent than their male counterparts.
Hill’s resignation did not happen in a vacuum and we cannot ignore its context — a context where an accused sexual abuser holds a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, a man who has bragged about sexually assaulting women sits in the Oval Office, and a woman’s career can be irreparably harmed just by speaking out against abuse, or she can be held accountable for the actions of men adjacent to her.
But it also exists in a context where women responded to the election of a man like Donald Trump by running for office in record numbers and where women have responded to accusations against powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Brett Kavanaugh (who have denied the allegations against them) by speaking out publicly about their own experiences for the first time. We may live in a world where revenge porn can end a woman’s political career, but we also live in a world where women like Christine Blasey Ford were brave enough to come forward and fight to be heard.
Rep. Hill’s time in the people’s house may be over, but the fight isn’t. When it comes to social progress, there is always another election and another opportunity to keep fighting.