Last week, the Daily Mail and conservative blog Red State published stories about Hill’s sex life. The gist: While the freshman representative was running for office, she and her husband were mutually involved in an extramarital relationship with a female campaign staffer — a liaison Hill has since acknowledged. Her husband also alleged that, once in office, Hill had an affair with a male staffer — which she denied.
The stories weren’t presented as breaking news so much as humiliation bombs: They included multiple naked photos of Hill, plus revelations that her estranged husband had shared such images under online threads called “wifesharing,” and other X-rated unprintable terms. The inclusion of photographic “evidence” was unnecessary by any measure. The photos did not, after all, address the matter of whether Hill had abused her position — the only germane issue, given conversations we’ve all been having about workplace power dynamics and coercion. The point of the images was to imply that Hill was a kinky slut. The point was shame.
Hill knew she’d erred: “Even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate,” she wrote in a statement when the story broke last week. But her resignation Sunday evening was clearly a preemptive move: She said that her “abusive” husband had released the photos in a “smear campaign,” and she didn’t know how many more might follow. “I know that as long as I’m in Congress we’ll live fearful of what might come next and how much it will hurt.”
Hill erred. But it’s hard to denounce her infractions when the people trumpeting them are such ghouls. It would be so much easier to applaud her resignation if it had come after a congressional investigation — one was already underway — instead of coming as a result of revenge porn.
Here are some phrases that are pertinent to parsing out the ethics of Katie Hill’s behavior: Power dynamics. Improper relationship. Potential special favors? Potential misuse of campaign funds? Official congressional rules related to lawmaker/staffer relationships.
Here are some phrases that are not pertinent: Throuple. Wifesharing. Bikini line. Naked hairbrushing. Lesbian affair.
The first set of phrases is about figuring out whether Hill should have resigned. The second is about how many pearls we get to clutch as she shows herself the door.
While we’re having this discussion, we could point out a few things. We could point out that Hill’s fellow California representative, Republican Duncan D. Hunter, was indicted on a charge of using campaign funds to support extramarital affairs with five women (five!), and still hasn’t stepped down.
Or we could get into the fact that it was only last year that the House began prohibiting relationships between representatives and staffers. And after decades of male politicians getting away with it, it’s a major eyeroll that one of the first to be punished is an openly bisexual millennial woman.
Or we could just keep it simple: The current president of the United States is alleged to have paid off a porn star to keep their affair quiet.
We could point all of these things out, and I guess I just did, but then we’d be having a discussion not about right and wrong but about tit for tat: Who we’ll make pay, but only if we’ve extracted the same toll from someone else. Whose failure to be a decent human now excuses another lawmaker’s failure to be a decent human.
Katie Hill was pushed out for all the wrong reasons, but she’s trying to do the decent human thing now. She’s acknowledging that elected officials can and should be held to higher standards. She’s sparing her constituents the drama of an investigation and grotesque news cycle, realizing that they deserve good governance, not a distracting scandal.
That’s all admirable, isn’t it? She was right to step down. Goose/gander, etc. She made a mistake and had to set an example.
Blah blah blah, blah blah blah.
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Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.