There are very clear elements of slut-shaming and homophobia in the Hill story, and her resignation letter is deeply sad
Democratic congresswoman Katie Hill has resigned after being accused of violating House Ethics rules by having a sexual relationship with staffers, and possibly using her position to grant improper favors. Members of her own party made it clear she did not have their support, with Nancy Pelosi saying that Hill has acknowledged errors in judgement that made her continued service as a member untenable. Hills case may seem straightforward: she violated the rules, she abused her office, she has to go. But theres much more to it, and we should be disturbed at the speed with which Hill was forced out of office before completing a single term.
Hill is one of the first openly bisexual members of Congress, and at age 32 was considered a rising star among the freshman class. Earlier this month, conservative media website RedState began revealing details about Hills sex life. Hill was alleged to have to been in a polyamorous relationship with both her husband and a female campaign staffer, as well as to have had an affair with her male legislative director. Hill acknowledged the relationship with the female staffer but denied having a relationship with the legislative director. Because the House of Representatives has a new, post-MeToo rule prohibiting sexual relations between members of Congress and staff, an investigation into Hills potentially unethical sex life was announced.
Its understandable to look into allegations of relationships between congresspeople and staff. After all, the rule was put in place because of the disturbing power imbalances present in such situations, and the House certainly has to look into evidence that Hill may used her position to offer financial and employment rewards to those she was in relationships with. But the way details of Hills sex life have been exposed, and Hills claim that her career is being ended by a vindictive husband, should give us serious pause before jumping to conclusions.
The media did not only publish evidence that Hill violated ethics rules. It also published photographs of her naked body. The Daily Mail offered its readers shocking photos of Hill nude, saying that her wild lifestyle has been laid bare in a cache of texts and intimate photographs. (The wild lifestyle consists of being naked, kissing a woman, and possibly smoking marijuana.) The Mail did not name its source, but it appears likely to have been Hills husband, who she claims is trying to get revenge on her. The husband said in his divorce complaint that he was upset Hill wanted him to be a house husband who stayed home and did chores.
Its outrageous that any newspaper would publish these kinds of photos. Imagine what it would feel like to wake up and find naked photographs of yourself printed and seen by millions; its literally the stuff of nightmares. No wonder Katie Hill has vowed to use her post-Congressional career to fight revenge porn. The way Hills sex life has been sensationalized into something luridwith headlines like swing districtcertainly makes public service a less appealing career. Who would want to serve in Congress knowing that their most intimate details could become public overnight?
I do not take a position on whether or not Katie Hill violated House ethics rules. Thats the entire purpose of having an adjudication procedure. If she did, she should be disciplined. That might not actually include pushing her out of Congress; my own position is that most decisions like that should be left up to voters. The prohibition on sexual relationships with staffers is new, and there is something disturbing about the fact that after untold numbers of men have had such relationships in Congressional history, the first person whose career will be ended by it is a young queer woman.
A complicated question is raised by Hills case: if it is the case that Hill violated ethics rules, but it is also the case that this violation only came to light as part of a campaign of revenge by her husband, should this affect whether Hill steps down? If men and women violate ethics rules at the same rates, but men are more likely to go public with accusations of ethics violations (because of what happens to female accusers), we might see women punished more often for misbehavior that occur with the same frequency across genders. In fact, its unclear whether Hills resignation is a just outcome even if the allegations against her are true one of the subordinates with who she is accused of having a relationship says that all the staffers lives have been ruined. These are the very people whose interests the rule is supposed to be protecting.
Even if it is complicated by the fact that Hill might simultaneously be guilty and persecuted, Hills case should be clear in one respect: she should have had a greater opportunity to clear her name. Hill says that she is being victimized. That needs to be taken seriously. Its disappointing that Nancy Pelosi threw Hill under the bus, and womens groups seem reluctant to speak up for her, while Republican Matt Gaetz, of all people, says Hill isnt being investigated by Ethics or maligned because she hurt anyone it is because she is different.
There are very clear elements of slut-shaming and homophobia in the Hill story, and Hills resignation letter is deeply sad: she talks of the cruel toll that this appalling invasion of my privacy driven by a monster [waging] a smear campaign is taking. I dont think anyone should feel as if justice is being done here, and elected officials like Hill should not be judged by conservative media campaigns but by a full investigation into the facts.
Nathan Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs and a Guardian US columnist