Punished for Being a Woman

We are misunderstanding Katie Hill's story.

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We can’t let another day go by without talking about US Rep. Katie Hill.

You probably don’t know who she is. If you do, you know that she resigned over the weekend amid a House investigation into a sexual relationship with a staffer. You may also know that she’s openly bisexual and was a rising star in the Democratic Party for being an outspoken champion for the cause of women’s rights and liberty. Put these narrative elements together and you have what appears to be a classic Washington story of a power-hungry politician brought low by the temptations for the flesh.

There’s probably some truth to that, but it’s almost certainly not the whole truth. Another way of telling this story, a way that isn’t being told, is that Katie Hill is a victim of revenge porn, that victims of revenge porn are (almost) always women, and that women are always punished for having sex, especially if it’s not with a man.

There’s a lesson here we can all learn.

We’re not learning it.

Katie Hill is a victim of revenge porn.

Hill was a part of the biggest blue wave to crash the doors of the House of Representatives since the Watergate era. Per the Associated Press: “She won the last Republican-held House seat anchored in Los Angeles County, part of a rout that saw GOP House members driven out of their seats in Southern California. She was elected by 9 percentage points last year, ousting two-term Republican Rep. Stephen Knight and capturing the district for her party for the first time since 1990. … Hillary Clinton carried the district in 2016 by 7 points. Hill’s campaign had raised a healthy $2.2 million so far this year, putting her on track for a strong reelection bid.”

Last week, the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into allegations that Hill had a sexual relationship with an employee in her office, which would be against a House rule forbidding sexual relationships with subordinates. Those allegations came to light after a right-wing political site called RedState.org published an article about a consensual three-way relationship Hill had with her husband and a female member of her campaign staff. The article included “intimate images” of the women together.

In other words, revenge porn.

Hill has denied having an affair with her legislative director, Graham Kelly, but she did admit to the Los Angeles Times that she had a relationship with a female campaign staffer during a rocky period with husband Kenneth Heslep. She is divorcing Heslep. She claims he is abusive. In her resignation letter, she said that she turned to others for intimacy during her campaign knowing it was inappropriate, and that she lamented that “the deeply personal matter of my divorce has been brought into public view.”

Now, as far as I can tell, the only thing Hill is confirmed to have done wrong was sex with a campaign staffer before she entered the House. This is not against House rules, because Hill had not yet taken the oath of office or her seat in the House. But having sex with a subordinate, whether a campaign staffer or congressional staffer, is going to be a problem for a Democratic Party acutely sensitive to charges of hypocrisy in the #MeToo era. Nancy Pelosi said her “error in judgment” was “untenable.” So this alone might have scuttled Hill’s career. (She might have been lying about denying an affair with her congressional staffer, too, but with her resignation, we’ll likely never know.)

What we do know is that someone leaked those images to RedState, meaning someone in that three-person relationship. (That is, if the device containing the images was not hacked.) That person, Hill claims, is Heslep, and I’m inclined to believe her. He knew what he was doing because there’s no other purpose for “revenge porn” other than being “sexually explicit images of a person posted online without that person's consent especially as a form of revenge or harassment,” according to Merriam-Webster.

Importantly, “a person” is almost always a women. Men, on the other hand, are almost never subject to the humiliation of having their sex lives made public because that would be in keeping with the larger sexist attitude that men are supposed to have sex.

Women, though, are not. That goes double for a bisexual woman, triple for a bisexual woman in a position of rising power, quadruple for a a bisexual woman in a position of rising power who championed the cause of women’s rights and liberty. If she were a white man, there might be a sense of justice in seeing an ambitious politician brought low by the temptations of the flesh. But what happened to Hill was not justice—unless you’re a regular reader of right-wing political news sites like RedState. In that case, justice has been served. Hill’s “crime” wasn’t what she did. It was who she is.

And for that, she’s been justly punished.

—John Stoehr