Freshman Rep. Katie Hill, faced with allegations she had a sexual relationship with a staff member, announced her resignation. USA TODAY
Katie Hill – a first-term Democratic congresswoman from California who was part of last year’s historic, women-led wave in the midterm elections – has resigned amid an ethics probe into sexual impropriety.
Would she have stepped down if she were a man?
Hill claims her soon-to-be ex-husband, Kenny Heslep, “weaponized” naked photos of her that were then published in a conservative media outlet without her consent.
The allegations Hill had sexual relationships with two of her staffers have led to debate on both sides of the political aisle around the double standards female elected officials face. They also have ignited conversations around revenge porn, biphobia (Hill is one of the first openly bisexual women in Congress) and what constitutes domestic violence in the digital age.
Hill, who is in the midst of a messy divorce, has denied an accusation she had an affair with a male congressional staffer — the more serious charge, since it violates new House rules passed in the wake of #MeToo. She has admitted and apologized for having a relationship with a young female member of her campaign staff. Sexually explicit photos of her with the campaign staffer were published on the conservative website RedState. Hill has accused her estranged husband, who allegedly also participated in the affair, of being behind the photo release.
Whether Hill should be investigated isn’t up for debate. Sexual violence awareness advocates say that’s wholly appropriate and a necessary part of changing a culture of sexual harassment and violence on Capitol Hill.
But the fact that the allegations have already led to her resignation, 10 days after the photos appeared online, is evidence Hill is being held to a different standard than her male counterparts, advocates say.
“Katie Hill is a representative who is under investigation for an allegation for inappropriate sexual behavior, and that is something that should be happening to more lawmakers. That’s an intended consequence of #MeToo,” said Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “It’s important to note the consequences she faces may be different because she is a woman who also identifies as bi.”
Look at Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif. Hunter was accused by federal prosecutors in June of using taxpayer money to carry on extramarital affairs with three lobbyists, a congressional aide and one of his staffers. Despite pressure to resign, he has remained in Congress and is expected to face a criminal trial in January.
Hill’s defenders say it wasn’t the alleged affairs that brought her down. It was revenge porn, defined by the nonprofit Without My Consent as “non-consensual publication of explicit images as a way to emotionally abuse, sexually exploit and rob people of control over their own bodies.”
A House investigation may find Hill violated ethics rules, but sexual violence experts say Hill is also a victim. The public may understand this as a “sex scandal,” but in most states, revenge porn is a crime.
“Society has not reckoned with the huge shift from in-person to cybercrime, and especially these new efforts to destroy people’s lives with online attacks,” says Sherry Hamby, founding editor of the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Violence.
In a statement released Sunday announcing her resignation, Hill called her husband “abusive” and accused “hateful political operatives” of giving him a platform to drive “a smear campaign.” In a video to her supporters released Monday, Hill pledged to battle revenge porn.
“I will fight to ensure that no one else has to live through what I just experienced,” she said. “Some people call this electronic assault, digital exploitation. Others call it revenge porn. As a victim of it, I call it one of the worst things we can do to our sisters and our daughters. … I will not allow my experience to scare off other young women or girls from running for office.”
Hill has asked U.S. Capitol Police to investigate the source of the photos.
As for RedState, which published the pictures, “unfortunately, we are not good at valuing the true costs of revenge porn and other cyber assaults,” Hamby said. “Any punishment these publications receive will probably seem like a small price to pay for forcing a Democratic politician to resign.”