Revenge Porn Comes to Congress — and Every Woman Should Pay Attention

Rep. Katie Hill’s admission of an affair with a campaign staffer shouldn’t overshadow the crime committed against her

Credit: Congressional Quarterly/Getty

Katie Hill just became the most visible victim of revenge porn, an egregious and profound violation of privacy — this time, enabled by the British press.

Hill, a congresswoman from California, is in the middle of a messy divorce, and her absolute disgrace of an ex-husband allegedly released nude photos of her. The Daily Mail printed them, with the claim that they show Hill has a Nazi tattoo. If that’s true, it’s of course repulsive, but the Anti-Defamation League paints a more complicated picture: Hill’s tattoo is of an iron cross, a neo-Nazi symbol that has more recently been adopted by extreme sports enthusiasts in a non-racist way. Regardless of the meaning behind the tattoo, its presence does not justify printing intimate photos sent by a vengeful ex.

The conversation about Hill has focused as much on her relationship with a campaign aide as it has on the photos. Hill has admitted to having an affair with a woman who worked on her congressional campaign, and has apologized to constituents. Hill is also the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation over allegations, again made by Hill’s estranged husband, that she had an affair with her legislative director, Graham Kelly (Hill denies that accusation). Hill’s affair with a campaign staffer doesn’t violate House ethics rules, but it’s still clearly questionable — a more-powerful boss sleeping with a young subordinate opens up questions of sexual harassment and significant impropriety.

But those questions pale in comparison to what has been done to Hill. Revenge porn is a scourge that some legislators, including those in Hill’s home state of California, have criminalized. In revenge porn cases, an angry ex (usually, though not always, a man) publicizes nude or sexual photos of someone (usually a woman) they want to humiliate and whose reputation they seek to damage. While we don’t see sexually active men as morally questionable, we still live in a world where sexually active women are branded as sluts and shamed them for their sexuality — which is exactly what’s happening to Hill.

There is simply more leeway for men to make mistakes or to be imperfect.

Hypocritical and exploitative conservatives want to make this a #MeToo moment, perhaps to take the heat off of the many men, including the current Republican president and his most recent pick for the Supreme Court, who have been accused of harassment and assault. And yes, it’s important to have consistent standards and say that sexual relationships with underlings are not appropriate, whether the boss is male or female. But if we care about gender equality and the ability for women to fully participate in the public sphere, the sexualized attacks against Hill are the most pressing matter.

Women routinely say they are afraid to run for office because they don’t want their lives picked apart. There is simply more leeway for men to make mistakes or to be imperfect. Just look at the current U.S. president: He has five children with three different women, has been divorced twice, and has had extremely messy public affairs. None of that matters; if anything, it brandishes his masculine winner-take-all image among his base (even, apparently, the Evangelical Christians who used to call themselves the “moral majority”). Women don’t have that option. A woman who cheats isn’t a cad; she’s a whore. And a woman photographed nude or in a sexual encounter? Even though we’re all naked under our clothes and most human beings have sex, she is less moral, less trustworthy and less decent. The publication of these photos doesn’t just humiliate Hill; it sends a threatening message to women everywhere: Become a public figure, even one who is a public servant, and you may be publicly sexually humiliated, too.

Hill is fighting back, having sent a cease and desist letter to The Daily Mail. The British tabloids are not exactly known for their sense of shame, but they should be red hot with it now. Publishing sexualized photos of a U.S. congresswoman to facilitate her former partner’s revenge fantasy crossed a bright line. If nothing else, this moment should push legislators all over the country to institute stiffer penalties for revenge porn — both for those who release these photos and for those who publish them.

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