The Societal Issues Behind Representative Katie Hill’s Resignation

November 20, 2019

On October 27th, news broke of California representative Katie Hill’s resignation due to  her alleged affair with a campaign staffer. It is with a broken heart that today I announce my resignation from Congress,” she said in her official statement. “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 is the first member of Congress to face investigation for violation of a new House rule sparked by the #MeToo movement. This rule prohibits legislators from engaging in sexual relations with anyone who works in their congressional office. While the rule does not apply to consensual relationships with campaign staffers, many, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, believe Hill’s choice to resign was the right thing to do. “We must ensure a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces,” Pelosi said in a statement.

Adding to the controversy around Hill is the “smear campaign” she describes being the victim of, according to an NPR story covering Hill’s choice to leave Congress. Nude photos of Hill and the female staffer involved in the alleged affair (Hill is openly bisexual) were released to conservative news sites by Hill’s husband, with whom Hill has been engaged in rancorous divorce proceedings. This is additional reasoning behind Hill’s decision to leave, explained in a statement by Hill in which she says, “I’m leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.”

This controversy around Representative Hill raises the issue of the objectification of women in all sectors of the workforce, but most especially women in leadership positions. Many women have shared their own stories on social media platforms of being afraid to pursue positions of power, for fear of being brought down by similar scandals. Ashley Fairbanks, a staffer on Julian Castro’s presidential campaign, said in an interview on NPR, “This thing happened to me when I was 19 without my consent, and someone took a photo of it. And every time I’ve thought about running for office, I have, like, a panic attack thinking about how this would be something that would come up. Like, in politics, we call that, like, oppo (ph) research. And I could just imagine someone’s oppo research folder having this photo in it.”

For most people who have naked photos in existence, the photos were taken when they were young and didn’t know any better. 12% of people from 18 to 29 years of age have had intimate photos shared without their consent, according to a 2017 Pew study. These photos are a weaponization of someone’s sexuality, and have the power to do real harm to that person.

The share of someone’s nude photos with malicious intent is often referred to as “revenge porn”. There are laws against it in most states, but it is difficult to prosecute, as it must be proven that the person sharing the photos intended harm. In a few states such as Illinois, however, it is easier to bring perpetrators of this crime to justice because the prosecution only needs to prove the photos were shared without the victim’s consent. As of yet, no federal law has been introduced addressing the issue.

The story behind Katie Hill’s resignation, as well as the fact that the share of people’s intimate photos with harmful results is so prevalent, is a message of warning. The existence of social media and online messaging has made engaging in behavior resulting in nude photos commonplace among younger generations, as discussed in a New York Times article called “Now Comes the Naked Truth”, written by Maureen Dowd. “There will always be vengeful exes and envious allies and ruthless opponents and double-crossing friends,” she emphasizes. “Whether the messages are being carried by pigeons or pixels, you have to protect yourself — and your data. Don’t let our shiny new tools blind you to the fact that some horrible truths about humanity never change. And don’t leave yourself vulnerable by giving people the ammunition — or the nudes — to strip you of your dreams.”

In an opinion piece written by Mary Anne Franks in the Washington Post, Franks addresses how public fear and antagonism towards powerful women contributed to the violation of Hill’s privacy. She writes, “Private and public misogyny intersect in nonconsensual pornography, a form of sexualized abuse most frequently directed at women who have committed the unpardonable sin of displeasing men.” The article presses readers to remember that though social media and online influences are fairly new in the scheme of things, misogyny, sexualization, and the objectification of women are not.

There were many additional reporters and editorialists who shared their thoughts on how Katie Hill’s scandal was made up of more than simple violations. Molly Roberts wrote in another Washington Post piece, “Katie Hill’s resignation is what accountability looks like — but it’s also what slut-shaming looks like. We can’t celebrate how far we’ve come when we got there by walking backward.” 

While people’s opinions on this controversy are in large part divided by political party, many agree that Katie Hill’s privacy was abused unjustly. The share of intimate photos to hurt another person, often to harm women, is an issue not often addressed but that many are the victim of. As younger generations age into a role in national politics, they will be bringing with them an internet culture that is unfamiliar to many older members of the government. Younger politicians may be the catalyst for federal laws addressing “revenge porn” to be passed. And Katie Hill’s scandal may have been what the country needed to begin having the conversation.

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