Society routinely attacks women in power, often demonizing their sexuality and weaponizing crimes like "revenge porn."
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On Sunday, Rep. Katie Hill announced her resignation from Congress, where she has represented California’s 25th District since January, following several days of targeted harassment and cyber violence. The smear campaign saw nude photos of Hill, a top Democrat representing a key swing district, allegedly leaked to right-wing media by her ex-husband in what amounts to a misdemeanor punishable by prison time. Early in the morning after Hill’s resignation, CNN reported that a GOP operative had told the network they had hundreds more intimate photos of Hill to be shared unless she resigned.
You would hardly have known this from the wave of headlines, tweets, article ledes, and push notifications in the immediate aftermath of her resignation, all of which focused on allegations Hill had had an affair with an aide without any context into her relationship with her allegedly abusive ex-husband, or the fact that she is the victim of a crime. After all, selective erasure from media has seldom if ever been to the benefit of women and victims of sex crimes, rather than the abusers who actively try to erase them.
Still, concerns about Hill’s alleged relationship with a staffer are valid and they merited investigation (it is illegal for members of Congress to have romantic relationships with staff), although her resignation emphasizes the hideous double standard to which male and female politicians are held. Handfuls of male politicians—including the Current Occupant of the Oval Office and two Supreme Court Justices—have retained their seats through not just alleged consensual affairs, but also alleged sexual harassment and assault charges. And considering the House Resolution to ban relationships between sitting members of Congress and their staffers was passed just last year, who can say how many past and present lawmakers have violated its terms (best guess: a lot)? Ultimately, we can ignore neither the sexism nor the bi-phobia that contributed to such disproportionate outrage targeting Hill: Because her alleged affair had been with a female staffer, predictably enough, it was hypersexualized and viewed through a lens of added subversion.
But the release of intimate photos of Hill as a means to punish, coerce, and humiliate her, not to mention influence her competitive election campaign and push her out of politics, has created another issue—and a far more urgent one: Hill is a victim of revenge porn.
In 2016 a study published by the Data & Society Research Institute found 10 million Americans—or one in 25—are victims of a crime called “revenge porn,” or the non-consensual sharing of a partner’s intimate photos as a means to punish or coerce them. Unsurprisingly, the study found that women under 30, people of color, and LGBTQ people are significantly more likely to be threatened with revenge porn than men. Additional research has shown this is an issue that starts early: In the U.K., a survey from 2018 revealed more than half of teenagers have friends who have shared intimate images of someone they know. In all cases, release of these photos has the power to strip women of jobs and relationships, young people of their futures, and entrap victims in abusive relationships indefinitely.
The label “revenge porn” is itself frustrating, as the word “revenge” offers implicit justification of this act of violation, while “porn” implies the pictures in question are just casual, sexual content rather than a crime. Currently 46 states—including California, where Hill is from and where her ex-husband resides—and D.C. have laws that explicitly prohibit revenge porn; in California, it is punishable with prison time. But Hill’s experience highlights that, at least on the federal level, Congress has seen a woman forced out of the House of Representatives because of a crime committed against her, before even considering or voting on legislation to protect revenge-porn victims.
Despite legal recognition of revenge porn as a crime, many—including Hill’s conservative opponents and the legions of internet trolls piling on her social media—continue to blame rather than sympathize with victims. The logic is that if they didn’t want the photos to be shared, why take them? But as usual, this places the burden of behavior modification and respectability politics on women, demanding that women do this or don’t do that to not be abused, rather than simply demanding that men not abuse. And in addition to sexist allocation of burden and emotional labor, we also can’t forget the many female politicians and leaders who do meet all of the ridiculous, gendered standards of respectability imposed on them, and are still pushed out of politics and power nonetheless.
Hill’s experience also brings to light the persistence of slut-shaming and misogyny in politics. Nude photos and sex scandals are such an effective, salient way to attack women in positions of power and leadership because society continues to link female worth and competency with women’s adherence to sexist standards for sexual purity. In other words, women who are seen as sexual beings are seen as inherently less-than—less intelligent, less worthy, less respectable—while men like our pussy-grabbing president are simply expected to be aggressively sexual beings.
Society at large—and especially abusive ex-partners—has always been bent on punishing women who rise to power, create change, and become prominent leaders like Katie Hill. Its weapon of choice for punishing women has always been humiliation, and sexuality has been the most salient way to humiliate women in a culture that binds our status and worthiness to appraisals of our sexuality.
In Hill’s statement announcing her resignation, she apologizes “for the mistakes made along the way,” adding she is “not a perfect person, and never pretended to be.” Notably, what made her campaign and role in Congress special to so many was her choice to center her humanity and be vulnerable through it all—her openness about her experience with unwanted pregnancy, her choice to share her experience with sexual violence in the aftermath of allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and her proud identification as a millennial woman and the first LGBTQ person to represent California in Congress. After winning one of the most competitive elections in the nation, she introduced, co-signed, and helped pass key legislation on reproductive rights, health care, LGBTQ justice, and more. And by doing it all as a young woman, she inspired unsaid numbers of young women and girls to see a path forward in politics and leadership.
Any success, let alone the sort of transformative success Hill achieved in her own right, earned by their victims is often insufferable to abusive ex-partners, as Hill’s ex-husband, Kenny Heslep, has been alleged to be. While Hill rose to be a top Democrat and among the faces of young women in politics, court documents recently showed Heslep has $205 in his bank account and has not held a job for five years.
It can’t be emphasized enough that Hill was forced to resign despite being the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime. Let’s be clear: It is not a crime to be a woman and have nude photos, or engage in consensual sexual activity in your private life. It is, however, a crime to violate and abuse a partner by sharing these photos—a crime for which those who targeted Hill will hopefully be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
As helpless as the coordinated smear campaign and removal of Hill from Congress is meant to make women across the country feel, it’s important to remember we’re not: We have the power to educate ourselves about our states’ revenge-porn laws, and if we live in states without such laws, we have the power to contact our representatives and demand action. We have the power to contact our representatives in Congress and demand they bring legislation to support victims of revenge porn to the floor. And we all have the power to support women in politics, and ensure the devastating attacks on Hill bring more rather than fewer legislators like her to Congress.
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