The treatment of congresswoman Katie Hill, who was forced to resign this week, has all the hallmarks of revenge porn in a political system still entrenched in male privilege.
“When you’re a star,” US president Donald Trump tells us, in an infamous recording from 2005, “You can do anything.” This includes the ability to “fuck” beautiful women and “grab them by the pussy”.
The soon-to-be leader of America was grudgingly sorry when his remarks were made public just weeks before his 2016 election. ‘Hey, no-one’s perfect!’ was the subtext of his defensive apology.
He needn’t have bothered: the outburst, along with multiple allegations of sexual assault, barely dented his whisker-thin majority at the ballot box just days later. Some commentators even believe it helped the president’s cause, by galvanising his particular breed of renegade supporters – boys will be boys, after all.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the media and world at large are not so forgiving of US Representative Katie Hill. The California Democrat was forced to resign this week, after admitting an “inappropriate” relationship with an unnamed female campaign aide before she entered Congress last year.
When Trump fell foul of the code of sexual politics, he was rewarded for it. When Hill did the same, albeit in a far more private and less inflammatory context, she paid the price.
Not only that, but Hill says her situation has been “weaponised” against her by a murky cast of players, including the “abusive” husband she is divorcing and RedState, a right-wing blog that published a nude photo of the congresswoman under the dubious banner of public interest.
Hill is currently being investigated by the House of Representatives Ethics Committee after RedState reported that she had an affair with her legislative director, Graham Kelly, in office; a move that could violate House rules on personal relationships. Hill denies this allegation and the committee itself was at pains to point out that launching an inquiry does not mean “that any violation has occurred”.
But who cares about the facts, because the story had already moved on. The same blog then published a story about an alleged three-way consensual relationship between Hill, her estranged husband Kenny Heslep and the previously mentioned female campaign staff member in 2018.
This salacious offering of “news” apparently warranted the publication of a nude photo of Hill, which was then gleefully circulated by her opponents on Twitter – in a humiliating and timeworn arc that has all the hallmarks of revenge porn.
No room in the ferociously sexist realm of politics for Hill to be victim, though: instead, the image formed part of a vicious backlash that ultimately forced the congresswoman to step down.
“Having private photos of personal moments weaponised against me has been an appalling invasion of my privacy. It’s also illegal, and we are currently pursuing all of our available legal options,” Hill said in her resignation letter.
“The fact is I am going through a divorce from an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me,” she added in a letter to constituents. “I am disgusted that my opponents would seek to exploit such a private matter for political gain.”
By her own admission, Hill’s consensual relationship with a female aide last year was inappropriate. But – unlike Bill Clinton, who also had a relationship with a subordinate, while occupying the highest office in the land – Hill openly owned her mistake straight off the bat.
“I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment,” the politician wrote as she resigned. “For that I apologise.”
Also significant is the fact that the relationship happened before Hill was elected to Congress; and therefore cannot be in violation of House ethics.
But, for women in office, there are no variations of grey. As a bisexual woman who has the temerity to have a personal life, Hill has been punished. Her career has been systematically destroyed, in a matter of just weeks.
Never mind the rich irony of a blog questioning Hill’s ethics with deeply unethical, and possibly illegal, methods of their own; methods then echoed by Hill’s opponents. In a world where women must always be judged, the means apparently justify the end.
And never mind that an ex whom Hill describes as abusive is possibly manipulating her downfall. A censorious media machine has no appetite for nuance in their systematic takedown of a grassroots politician lauded for her work on homelessness and gender equality.
The fact is, Hill — a one-time rising star of the Democratic party — was seen as a threat to the White House’s entrenched system of male privilege from the moment she knocked out Republican incumbent Steve Knight in the November midterms. A progressive like her was a clear target even without her estranged husband and other factors coming into play.
Unlike the many male politicians who have lied and bragged their way out of issues arising from sexual misconduct, Hill was not afforded the luxury of having a less than squeaky-clean private life. She stepped out of line and she was taken down. And for that, we should all be worried.