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The curious case of Katie Hill

On Sunday, Democratic Rep. Katie Hill of California announced her resignation from Congress, following recent allegations that she had an improper relationship with a campaign staffer before taking office. (She has denied separate allegations that she had an inappropriate relationship with a congressional staffer.)

“This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but I believe it is the best thing for my constituents, my community, and our country,” Hill said in a statement. “For the mistakes made along the way and the people who have been hurt, I am so sorry, and I am learning.”

There’s plenty to parse regarding the news about Hill. But one of the most important elements is this: Forgiveness, when it comes to the messiness of politics, is a privilege not evenly distributed. More specifically, it’s disproportionately withheld from women and Democrats.

Former Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana? In 2007, he admitted to having been previously involved in a Washington prostitution ring while in office. In 2010, he was reelected to the Senate.

Republican 2020 presidential candidate Mark Sanford? He completed his second term as the governor of South Carolina after he admitted in 2009 that he’d had a taxpayer-funded affair. In 2013, he once again ran for and won a seat in Congress.

Physician and Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee? A divorce trial transcript released in 2012 documented that he’d previously had multiple affairs with patients and had pressed one of them to have an abortion. (DesJarlais initially said that the incriminating phone conversation was recorded without his knowledge, though this contradicted the transcript.) He remains in Congress.

Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California? In June of this year, a court filing alleged that, over years, he’d used campaign funds for extramarital affairs with lobbyists and congressional staffers. (Duncan has pleaded not guilty to these charges.) He, too, is still in office.

And this is to say nothing of President Donald Trump, who has remained unscathed by the allegations that more than a dozen women have publicly leveled against him, ranging from unwelcome advances to sexual harassment and assault. (The President has repeatedly denied all such allegations.)

Even Democrat Al Franken, who resigned from his Senate seat in 2018 following allegations that he had touched women inappropriately, is attempting a bit of a comeback, having headlined Politicon last weekend.

Put another way, men, particularly those of certain political persuasions, are often given redemption arcs, while women who dare to challenge norms — such as Sandra Fluke, who in 2012 was slut-shamed after she testified before Congress in an effort to persuade Georgetown University to include birth control in its health care coverage — are expected to buckle to biases and, ultimately, bow out.

In addition to uneven standards — and the fact that Democrats, at least in the post-Bill Clinton era, seem willing to hold their own accountable to a degree Republicans aren’t — there’s something else that shouldn’t be overlooked in the Katie Hill debacle: that she also appears to be the victim of revenge porn (which is illegal in both the District of Columbia and California).

Over the past week, a conservative blog and a British tabloid magazine have disseminated intimate photos of Hill, with the former claiming that she and her husband of nine years, Kenny Heslep, had a separate relationship with a female campaign staffer.

In this light, this isn’t merely a story of dueling responses to sexual misbehavior — it’s also a story of a foul assault on a woman’s privacy. In a video statement on Monday, Hill alleges that her “abusive husband,” whom she’s in the midst of divorce proceedings with, and “hateful political operatives” are attempting to humiliate her via the photos. (CNN has reached out to Heslep for comment but has not heard back.)

But there’s a twist: Hill is fighting back. In the aftermath of the publication of the photos, she’s pursuing legal action against outlets that have shared the photos.

“I’m hurt. I’m angry. The path that I saw so clearly for myself is no longer there,” Hill says in the Monday video. “I never claimed to be perfect. But I never thought my imperfections would be weaponized and used to try to destroy me and the community I’ve loved for my entire life.”

As visible as the theme of impunity for male misbehavior has become in the past couple years, so, too, has the power of women’s anger at the world’s many gendered injustices. This rage is no longer a cause for shame but rather a cause for its own weaponization.

“To every girl and woman — to everyone who believes in this fight — this isn’t over,” Hill tweeted on Sunday. There’s every reason to believe that she’s right.

CNN