Illustration: Sol Cotti

Why Run for Office if a Vindictive Ex May One Day Release Revenge Porn?

We’ll all lose out if women opt out of politics because they’re afraid of nude photos getting out

IIt’s easy to imagine Adrienne in the halls of Congress. First, there’s the resume: A graduate degree from an Ivy League school; a career in global health; a lifelong dedication to progressive causes and women’s rights. Then there’s the skill set: Her jobs have entailed every aspect of management; she’s traveled the globe seeing health interventions in action; she’s a seasoned public speaker; she has seen how the policy sausage gets made and how policy works (or doesn’t) in the real world. And finally, there’s that intangible thing: Adrienne has charisma. She is tall, wide-eyed, and graceful, with high cheekbones. When she walks into a room, people notice. When she talks, she’s eloquent, compelling, and deeply intelligent. People around her go quiet, and they listen.

“As I’ve matured into my career and found my voice, I’ve felt like maybe there could be a place for me in politics,” Adrienne says. (Adrienne is a pseudonym, as are the names of the other women in this article women who are referred to by their first name only.) “In my mind, you have to be someone who is exceptional at listening and connecting with others, and you have to be equally as shrewd in getting shit done and not taking shit. You’re the ultimate power broker between the system and the people.”

Running for office “is something people have brought up,” she says. “And I’ve just shut it down and said, nope, too many nudes out there.”

The Warning Shot

When Congresswoman Katie Hill stepped down from her seat last month, her resignation was ostensibly about an affair with a campaign staffer. But there was something else, too: the public release of intimate photos, and the threat there were more to come. Hill doesn’t dispute the affair was wrong. But she resigned in part, she said, because of the intimidation and humiliation that came along with the unauthorized release of these photos, which many believe were handed over by her angry, estranged husband, and published by the conservative site RedState and the UK tabloid The Daily Mail.

It’s a story that’s bigger than Katie Hill. Advocates for women in elected office, and women themselves, say Hill is an early victim of what will be a pervasive hazard for politically ambitious women if laws, media standards, and cultural expectations don’t change... and fast. Already, many women have told me they considered running for office, but were brought to heel by the fear that intimate or unprofessional photos would surface, embarrassing them and their families and potentially torpedoing their careers. If the existence of a nude photos sidelines women from politics, this means a lot of potential candidates are out of the running. While the research on intimate photographs is not scientifically flawless, one survey found that more than half of young people had received a nude photo; in another, close to 90% of young women said they have taken one.

The publication of intimate photos without consent and for the purposes of sexual humiliation is a form of abuse that has earned the imperfect moniker “revenge porn.” It is a crime in 46 states, including Hill’s home state of California. In her final speech, Hill decried the “double standard” that stigmatizes and shames women who evince even a hint of sexuality but rewards men perceived as masculine and sexually successful. She also blamed “the right-wing media” which sought “to drive clicks and expand their audience by distributing intimate photos of me taken without my knowledge, let alone my consent, for the sexual entertainment of millions.”

“When you’re a woman in any kind of position of power, there’s a guillotine over your head.”

“I am 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,” Hill said. She encouraged women, nonetheless, “to keep showing up, to keep running for office, to keep stepping up as leaders, because the more we show up, the less power they have.”

Women have indeed been showing up and running for office, and broke records in 2018. But if we want this to continue, advocates and women themselves say, we have to put a stop to the politically motivated release of intimate photos — or, at the very least, create a penalty for the people who release them.

“Seeing [Hill’s] photos, first you’re taking in what they are, and then immediately I felt a pang of fear,” Adrienne says. “I was thinking about photos that might be around of me somewhere that I may or may not have taken, may or may not have shared, may or may not remember. It’s the lack of control, and knowing that when you’re a woman in any kind of position of power, there’s a guillotine over your head.”

The Fear Factor

Sophia started her career on political campaigns and went on to work at progressive advocacy organizations because, she says, she wanted to make a difference. She was happy to do that behind the scenes — but then Trump happened, and then the Women’s March, and after that the swell of women winning elections in the 2018 midterms. “We’re all encouraging women to run, and I’ve definitely thought about, ok, why wouldn’t I do it?” she says. “I should be the person to do it. I could be really good at it. You get this surge of confidence from the movement and the culture we’re living in right now, and that feels really good. But then when you’re reminded of things that could happen to you, like what happened to Katie Hill. And it undermines that confidence.”

“We all make mistakes. It’s just that our mistakes are documented in a way that previous generations’ were not.”

It’s an issue that’s particularly resonant for women under 40, who are both more likely to have taken nude photos and, historically, are less likely to run for office. Advocates for putting more women in positions of power have been focused on pushing younger women to run, because, they say, the only way to even out the gender imbalance in politics is to get women in the pipeline as early and often as men. But it’s also younger women who are the most vulnerable to sexualized attacks, both because they are often already perceived as sexual objects, and because the ubiquity of smartphones means that young women who came of age in the internet era are simply more likely to have a larger cache of potentially problematic photos in their pasts.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect person,” Sophia says. “We all make mistakes. It’s just that our mistakes are documented in a way that previous generations’ were not.”

According to a new report on women running for office by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, online harassment (and fear of that harassment) remains a major hurdle for ambitious, politically minded women. That’s on top of the usual impediments: The fact that women are more likely to be the primary caretakers for small children, and that women are less likely than men to see themselves as qualified and ready for office. Female candidates are already under greater scrutiny than male ones, in terms of their qualifications, their likability, and their physical appearance — all of which impacts their perceived electability. Young women know this, and it shapes their decision to run, or to beg off.

“When we talk to young women about why they should run for political office, so many of them say they don’t want to be scrutinized for their appearance, and they all worry they have skeletons,” says Susanna Wellford, the CEO and founder of Running Start, an organization that trains women and girls in high school and college to run for office. “This is something so unique to this generation. Everyone has photos on the web of something that could be embarrassing.”

The photos Sophia worries about aren’t particularly explicit. But they’re of the kind of youthful silliness that women fear can still be leveraged against them. Those fears aren’t irrational: Just a few months ago, opponents of Safiya Khalid, a Somali refugee who was running for a seat on the city council of Lewiston, Maine, circulated a photo of her as a high school student. She was just being a typical teenager, making a face and flipping off the camera. Nevertheless, her adversaries saw a vulnerability. “Make her go viral,” one tweeted.

Khalid won anyway. But this threat — make her go viral — is a particularly stomach-twisting one for women.

It’s also a threat that seems to be leveraged against women who are already vulnerable or different. Khalid is a Muslim who wears a headscarf. Hill is bisexual and polyamorous, which might have made her a particularly easy target for the kind of humiliation that is the purpose of nonconsensual pornography. “We often think of sex as both exciting and disgusting,” says Danielle Citron, a professor of law at Boston University Law School and 2019 MacArthur Fellow for her work on combating cyber harassment. That disgust is magnified when we encounter “women who are nontraditional in their relationships or have slept with more than one man or have multiple partners, if they’re polyamorous, or if they’re gay.”

Understanding the appeal of sexy photos, women say, is also key in pushing back against the narrative that such photos are “mistakes” and the result of poor judgment. Adrienne says she took the photos for two reasons: “I was at a time in my life where I felt very empowered and in control of my sexuality in a new way. It was engaging in something, taking photos, that seemed a little bit edgy. But I felt completely comfortable and in control of where I was at the time. And two, you get caught in the moment, and you want to send something to someone to provoke them or make them think of you — it’s a little bit of pulling, trying to start something. It’s fun. Sexy.”

“The fact that we are still making these trivializing it’s-your-fault arguments, and from women, is so depressing I just want to hit my head against the wall.”

Human beings have been sexually enticing each other for all of human history. To expect that would stop at the smartphone — especially when so many other private aspects of our lives, from what’s for dinner to the details of one’s dental appointments, are being made public — seems more naïve than the actual act of taking a naked selfie. And yet even as some prominent figures decried the publication of Hill’s photos, they also suggested it was she who had erred in allowing them to be taken in the first place. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said the release of the photos was shameful, but, in a closed-door meeting, added that “It goes to show you, we should say to young candidates, and to kids in kindergarten really, be careful when transmitting photos.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd scolded millennials: “Don’t leave yourself vulnerable by giving people the ammunition — or the nudes — to strip you of your dreams,” she wrote.

“The fact that we are still making these trivializing it’s-your-fault arguments, and from women, is so depressing I just want to hit my head against the wall,” Citron says. The combination of the release of Katie Hill’s photos and then the suggestion that she was at fault “is a very powerful negative message to young people and especially to young women, who we know are three times more likely to face threats of nonconsensual pornography, and have someone do it,” Citron says. “It’s saying to women: stay in your place.”

Tipping the Scales of Self-Doubt

When it comes to running for office, “I’ve always questioned, why do I think I’m important enough or special enough that I should be doing this instead of someone else?” says Diane Bolme, a researcher and consultant in Washington, D.C. Still, she knows she’s hard-working, having broken away from a conservative religious community, put herself through college, and built a challenging and fulfilling career. She knows she is empathetic and understands people who view the world very differently than she does, having seen her own views so radically shift. Friends, professors, and colleagues have told her she would make a good public servant and a good politician. When weighing all of that against her own insecurities, the scale tips toward running.

But then she thinks about the photos.

Bolme did some modeling in her twenties, and in some of the pictures, she’s topless. She also exchanged sexual photos with a long-distance boyfriend, whose phone was later stolen. She thinks he was able to wipe them, but what if he wasn’t? What if they’re still floating around out there?

“I’m not ashamed of any of these photos at all,” Bolme says. The modeling ones are beautiful, and she felt sexy when she sent the personal ones. But they still give her pause. “What I truly fear is how they could be exploited by, predominately, men in a variety of ways to judge and objectify me all at once in inaccurate, inappropriate, and just plain wrong ways,” she says.

It’s ironic, she says, when she thinks about the downsides of running, “the things that are the most terrifying are not the things that I’ve done that are wrong.” Stupid mistakes in her personal life she can explain and apologize for. The most terrifying things are the ones that exploit your most intimate and vulnerable moments, turning what was gratifying, exciting and sexy into a source of shame and embarrassment.

Adrienne often finds herself making a similar calculus. “It’s not like I’m doing something illegal,” she says. “But just knowing you’re leaving yourself open to someone using your vulnerability as a tool or weapon against you, it’s like, why would you even go there?”

Women know there is no such thing as female invincibility, no matter how careful you are. And feminists have worked tirelessly to lower the stakes for female risk-taking (or even just female life-living) — pushing back against victim-blaming, encouraging women to be a little braver, tearing down long-standing barriers. It’s worked: the last half-century has brought about a profound transformation of gender roles in the United States. But the goal of equality is still far off, leaving women to navigate an uneven and rapidly shifting landscape.

“As young women, especially if you considered yourself a feminist, you are always on the knife edge,” Adrienne says. “That’s how I feel constantly. I’m going to walk into a bar and I’m going to hold my own against a man who’s trying to edge me out, until he turns around and threatens to hurt me. It’s like, how far am I going to go before they tear me down? That’s kind of the adrenaline rush of trying to outkick your coverage as women.”

Being bold can be at once scary and thrilling. Bolme vacillated back and forth on the question of whether to use her real name for this story. On the one hand, admitting to having nude photos could be professionally damaging. But on the other, she doesn’t think it should be disqualifying for a woman to pose topless or send a sexy photo to a paramour; how do these narrow standards ever change if women stay shrouded in shame?

She ultimately decided to put her name in the story.

Stepping into the Fire

This, women’s advocates say, is the only way forward. “You run into a problem where talking about how [nonconsensual pornography] scares women might lead to it scaring women, in the same way that talking about how hard it is for women to run for office might make it harder for women to run for office,” says Amanda Litman, the founder of Run For Something, an organization that supports young people running for office. “The way I try and balance it is saying that it is hard, this is always a possibility, and there is strength in numbers. Society is changing. The best way for it to change is for some people to step forward and draw fire.”

The assessment of when and whether to take such a significant risk is something Adrienne has considered in other aspects of her life. In a recent security training for work in high-risk areas, the facilitator suggested that perhaps the only workable solution to balancing risk with obligation in emergency settings was to conclude that the worst thing would happen — that you could be sexually assaulted or even killed — and build resilience to that eventuality. The question to ask, Adrienne says, is not “what if something bad happens?” but “if the worst-case scenario happens to you, will it have been worth it to go on that trip? And if you can’t say yes, you shouldn’t go.”

“In a weird way it applies to this situation,” she says. “Was it worth it to take those photos if it could ruin your career?” Or, on the flip side, assume the photos will come out. Would it have been worth it to run for office anyway? Is expanding the larger project of women’s rights important enough that you’re willing to take some fire?

“This is not to say that any woman should be the sacrificial lamb,” Litman says. “But you gotta be brave, and be willing to take a few hits and know that the broader cause and the work that you do is worth it anyway.”

The good news, Litman says, is that things are changing, and quickly, in part thanks to the work of women like law professor Citron, whose scholarship laid the groundwork for a great many state laws, and influenced draft federal legislation that would level greater penalties for non-consensual pornography. “We’ve made clear strides,” Citron says, and society and the law both seem to be coming around to the fact that “sexual privacy is incredibly important to respect and preserve. It’s intimacy-enhancing, relationship-enhancing, privacy-securing.”

One upside of the Katie Hill photo release is that it has brought a particularly female fear out of the shadows. “I really truly thought that I was the only one who made a quote-unquote ‘dumb’ decision in the moment and hampered my whole career,” Adrienne says. “Hearing that other women have this fear or think this way is really helpful to me, because a lot of what’s challenging about this is a lot of internalized shame.” It’s like long-standing tropes about sexual assault, she says — “there’s always some implicit blame. But talking about it and hearing that others reflect on this conundrum is helpful in undoing that a little bit.”

And it might just push her to run after all. She’s talked to her partner about the photos and her fears, and his reaction amounts to, “So what? Do it anyway.” Even if the worst-case scenario happened, Adrienne is beginning to think, it could be worth it.

“I feel antsier than ever for the need for all of us to be much more radical, and the need for more people to be willing to lose what they have,” she says. “Especially those of us with privilege who have something to lose. We need to be more willing. For our greater movement and for our greater cause.”

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