Katie Hill’s Resignation Should Have Been Met With Outrage, Not Silence

Activists, advocates, and even organizations that fundraise on anti-revenge porn work have an obligation to speak up when we see this abuse happening.

[Photo: Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) speaks during a news conference.]
In a statement posted to Twitter, Rep. Katie Hill explained that she was stepping down out of fear that more private, personal images would be released by her abusive soon-to-be-ex-husband and political operatives, some of whom claim to have more than 700 photos of her. Zach Gibson / Getty Images

On Sunday, U.S. Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) announced her resignation from Congress. In a statement posted to Twitter, she said she was stepping down out of fear that additional private, personal images would be released by her “abusive husband and … hateful political operatives,” some of whom claim to have more than 700 photos of her.

A woman who fought like hell to win one of California’s most difficult districts for Democrats and dedicated her life to public service was just pushed out of office by those using her sexuality against her. Hill was elected in the age of #MeToo, with a midterm campaign powered by suburban “Red Wine and Blue” resisters wearing pussy hats and writing postcards reminding other women to vote. These grassroots groups were mobilized by anger around Donald Trump’s election, specifically in response to his attacks on women. They haven’t gone anywhere, so Hill’s resignation should have been met with outrage.

Instead, the left has been largely silent while Hill is destroyed by the toxic misogyny we claim to reject. Activists, advocates, and even organizations that fundraise on anti-revenge porn work have an obligation to speak up when we see this abuse happening.

When leaders have spoken up, they have tended to bookend their support for Hill with reminders that she’s “made a mistake.” Other writers and commentators have characterized Hill’s situation as “an ugly mess” or “complicated.” This framing stems from the fact that she and her husband had a relationship with a friend and campaign consultant, prior to Hill becoming a member of Congress. Hill has apologized for what she describes as a “consensual” but an “inappropriate” relationship with her campaign staffer.

Hill’s husband also alleges that she was having an affair with her legislative director, something she has vehemently denied. The House Ethics Committee is investigating the allegation, and Hill is cooperating fully. While Hill is right—her relationship with her campaign staffer was absolutely inappropriate—Hill’s opponents and much of the media seem fixated on her gender and her sexuality. There’s barely any coverage of the allegations of Hill’s affair with a male House staffer, but the reporting around her “throuple” relationship with a man and a woman is focused on her sexual orientation and sensationalizing the novelty of a three-person relationship. When former Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct? The headlines were very different.

And the truth is, Hill’s past relationships have nothing to do with the fact that she is a victim of abuse. Hill alleges that her husband Kenny Heslep, with whom she is in the middle of divorce proceedings, released the photos to outlets and GOP operatives, though Heslep has not admitted to doing so. Whoever released the photos, whether it was Hill’s husband or someone else, broke the law. Revenge porn is a crime.

A few political and movement leaders have spoken out in support for Hill. The only 2020 presidential candidate to do so is Sen. Kamala Harris, also from California. Harris said Hill is a victim of “cyber exploitation.” Harris has a long history of prosecuting cyber exploitation cases and has sponsored legislation making the practice a federal crime.

Others have chimed in on Twitter:

Let me make this clear: Hill is not responsible for the leaks of her nude images. Qualifying sympathy and support for her with condemnation for her “wrongdoings” reinforces the idea that her lifestyle or choices led to her abuse. That’s victim-blaming.

With our silence, Democrats and progressives are sending a strong message. We’re telling victims that with just a few clicks, their abusers can hurt them anywhere, anytime. Even in the United States Congress. We should be screaming at the top of our lungs about the blatant abuse happening right before our eyes, but we aren’t. We’re letting one of our shining stars, one of the most promising members of the 2018 freshman class, be pushed out of office by an act of abuse and questionable journalistic ethics. And in doing so, we’ve become complicit.

Young people considering careers in public service are watching this situation unfold too. We live in a world where sexting and nude photos are part of intimacy. Revenge porn shouldn’t happen, but it does. Running for office, especially as a young woman, makes you vulnerable to personal attacks. People who watched someone as powerful and respected as Rep. Hill fall victim to something so relatable, with little support from her colleagues and supposed allies, might be less likely to run in the future.

We know this impact will be amplified in communities of color and the LGBTQ community, where people are more likely to be victims of violence and abuse. Although there is little available data, we know that young people, Black people, and members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to be victims of revenge porn than their older, heterosexual, white counterparts. These communities experience higher rates of violence and abuse in general. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women. More than 40 percent of Black women and 51 percent of Native women experience physical violence from an intimate partner.

The idea of a less diverse candidate pool is terrifying. We need bisexual, queer, polyamorous members of Congress. We need more people of color in office. We need members of Congress who have lived through abusive relationships and have had bumpy, rocky lives. In the age of social media and cell phone cameras, it’s becoming harder for imperfect victims to stand in their truths. After this, why would anyone be willing to take on that level of vulnerability?

There’s still time for us to do the right thing.

As the news cycle churns, it might feel like the door is closing on this chapter of Hill’s life. But for Hill, it’s just beginning. The photos she believes her husband released are still in the hands of her political enemies. She still has to face her abuser in her fight for justice, and when that’s done, she’s promised that she’s not going to stop fighting revenge porn.

We can, and should, express our solidarity with Hill and make it clear that Congress and any elected office is a safe space for people to be themselves—their whole, authentic selves—free from abuse and violence, so they can fight for the people and ideas they were elected to represent. We must make that clear, without reservation and without hesitation, before more damage is done.