Former Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) (cover photo) resigned after she admitted to having an affair with a campaign staffer and pictures of her nude were released. Courtesy of Flickr
On Oct. 31, close to a year after she was elected as the first openly bisexual member of Congress, Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) gave her resignation speech, announcing, “I yield the balance of my time for now, but not forever.”
Her resignation followed two sexual harassment allegations and blackmail entailing the leaking of her nudes.
In early October, a conservative website, Red State, reported that Hill and her husband, who she was in the process of divorcing, were in a relationship with one of her campaign staffers. Later, the same website leaked Hill’s texts about this relationship and explicit pictures of Hill.
Hill admitted to this affair, writing “I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment. For that I apologize.” Because the affair took place before Hill was elected to Congress, the affair does not break any congressional sexual harassment policies, but critics of Hill argue that the unequal relationship between Hill and her staffer may have led to an abuse in power.
RedState also accused Hill of having an affair with her legislative director Graham Kelly. Hill has denied this allegation, and Kelly has not come forth with any accusations. However, because Kelly is congressional staff and not campaign staff, this alleged relationship would be in violation of Congress’s recent sexual harassment policies, which came into effect after the #MeToo movement.
Hill’s story is a complicated one that asks important questions about gender, sexuality, and power. On one hand, it’s important that we talk about sexual harassment when it happens outside of the script of a powerful man harrassing a vulnerable women. When we recognize that women can harass women and men, we are able to understand how harrassment functions as a tool of power and not just as the result of gender.
Additionally, we should hold our leaders accountable across party lines. Criticism of Hill’s choices is appropriate, and to some extent, maybe even necessary. But we have to balance being critical of Hill’s use of her power as a potential instance of sexual harassment with a recognition that blackmail and leaking of her nudes were an acts of misogyny.
In her resignation speech Hill said, “I am leaving now because of a double standard. I am leaving because I no longer want to be used as a bargaining chip.” She explained this double standard by pointing to the reality that while she was stepping down, “we have men who have been credibly accused of intentional acts of sexual violence and remain in boardrooms, on the Supreme Court, in this very body and worst of all, in the Oval Office.”
Instead of talking about the ways the leaking of Hill’s nudes functions as an act of misogyny attempting to police her body and render her vulnerable, surprisingly, quite a bit of the national news coverage about Hill’s resignation has been critical of Hill and millenials in general for their nude taking.
For example, in a Nov. 2 opinions piece for the New York Times, Maureen Dowd ends her story with the line “don’t leave yourself vulnerable by giving people the ammunition — or the nudes — to strip you of your dreams. OK, millennials?”
Time Magazine covered Hill’s resignation in a story with the headline “Katie Hill Is the First Millennial Lawmaker to Resign Because of Nudes. She Won’t Be the Last.”
Much of this coverage either states or implies that millennials are irresponsible for taking or sharing naked pictures of themselves, but this coverage gets something very wrong. The problem here is not that Katie Hill has a body or even that she used her body in a sexual way. The issue is that misogyny meant that those who illegally invaded her privacy by leaking vulnerable pictures were successful in rendering her into a sexual object instead of a political agent.
Opponents of Katie Hill were threatened by the ways she held political power. They leaked her nudes because they wanted her to know that she does not have personal power over her own body.
In a 2015 story for the Guardian, the authors write,“Revenge porn is fundamentally used to shame, extort and harm women,” and, more than just an attempt to shame women, revenge porn functions as a silencing tool.
In the Washington Post, Christina Emba responded to the sentiment that millennials are asking for abuse when they take and share nudes. Emba writes that millenials “may share more than ever, but we’re still just as capable of feeling vulnerable — and attacked — as anyone else.” Emba points out that male politicians don’t resign when pictures of them partying or in black face are leaked, but women resign when it’s nudes. This discrepancy comes down to the fact that women are shamed for being sexual actors while white men in power are expected to benefit from racist and sexist hierarchies.
We need to be thinking about consent in digital sexual relationships the same way we think about consent in physical relationships. When a woman consents to sex with one person, we know that she is not consenting to sex with every person. But when nudes are shared with one person, we expect her to be comfortable with the possibility that they’ll be spread to others.
This attitude that “millenials should know better before sending nudes” normalizes the idea that nudes belong to the person who receives them rather than the person who sends them. But in both physical and digital spaces, our bodies are our own. We need a cultural shift that recognizes that.
During her speech, Hill argued, “The way to overcome this setback is for women to keep showing up, to keep running for office, to keep stepping up as leaders, because the more we show up, the less power they have.” Her advice is brave and powerful.
Misogyny thrives when society renders women as objects of their gender and sexuality instead of agents and subjects. The blackmail against Hill succeeded because, as a society, we have accepted a version of sexuality which renders a sexualized woman powerless. It’s on all of us to do better at recognizing and refusing the ways society mobilizes the bodies of women to establish their gender as a force that separates them from power and agency.