Hill is the first female legislator to leave her post in the still-hazy new world the country confronted after the Harvey Weinstein allegations turned into a movement. America said it was ready to rip out the rot, and now we’re ripping away. Why, then, doesn’t this one feel like a win?
It’s important to remember that the Hill episode hasn’t been a story merely of progress and principle; it certainly didn’t begin that way. It started instead as an occasion for prurience: Katie Hill’s ex, she says, handed intimate photographs over to a tabloid, which published them for the nation to consume. Hill’s downfall was the result of her own misconduct, but it was also the product of revenge porn.
Hill’s alleged affair with her congressional employee would violate a rule her colleagues passed only last year. But even the behavior she does own up to merits her exit since her campaign staffer was in a subordinate role. Everything Hill is accused of was consensual, and though that matters, it doesn’t matter enough to excuse her, because employer-employee affairs present an inherent risk of coercion.
The #MeToo movement taught us that power is the problem. Its aim was to dismantle the systems that allow that power to accumulate in the hands of the people most likely to abuse it — and then allow the powerful (especially men) to abuse the less powerful (especially women) even more.
This movement has succeeded, at least in part. Something has shifted, fundamentally enough that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) felt compelled after Hill’s announcement to sing out about “a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces.”
Something else, however, hasn’t even budged: the way that society is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by female sexuality.
There have been nude and nude-ish photos of men, too, of course. Remember Anthony Weiner? Remember, more recently, Joe Barton (R-Tex.)? He decided not to seek reelection after a picture of him made the rounds on the Internet, and now commentators are holding him up like a mirror. He and Hill, they say, are the same. But the thing is, the mirror is actually doing what mirrors do: displaying the flip-side.
Barton sent a woman images she said she didn’t even initially ask for — then threatened to report her to the Capitol Police if she shared them. The full-frontal snapshot of the then-sexagenarian congressman that circulated most widely wasn’t even fully frontal after all; his genitals were obscured, and there wasn’t much else to see. Few people, it appeared, really wanted to stare at a naked old man for their own enjoyment.
Then there’s Hill. The congresswoman, unlike the congressmen who went before, doesn’t seem to have been the one who hit the send button on the infamous “throuple” photos. Her husband appears to have publicized pictures that all parties took with each other for each other’s private pleasure. His motivation for spreading them, according to Hill, is nothing but spite. This is part of a tradition of jilted men charging their jilters with promiscuity. And the propaganda outlets and peeping-tom tabloids dressed up as newsmakers who helped him out have always been proud participants in this effort to weaponize women’s sexuality against them.
Revenge porn didn’t earn the name “revenge porn” only because it’s vengeful. It earned the name in part because, as far as many men on the receiving end are concerned, it’s porny. Many men are eager to gawk at a naked young woman, which helps these images go viral: Vox points out that ordinary Internet users weren’t Googling to learn what Hill did or didn’t do. They were Googling to sneak a glimpse of her with another woman. Top search terms, after “throuple,” included “photos” and “uncensored.”
Just as crucially, many of these same men are eager to smear a woman as a slut even as they’re gawking, which also makes the images potent tools of retribution. Maybe compromising photos of a male legislator in his more vigorous years would rocket across the web, too, and were employees involved, he could surely meet his political demise as well. But he’d probably earn accolades for his virility instead of attacks for his wantonness along the way.
The Hill matter isn’t only about misogyny, either. It’s about homophobia and a strange intersection of bigotry and fetishization. RedState’s original headline sags with subtext: “Bisexual Rep. Katie Hill Allegedly Left Her Husband For Her (Male) Legislative Director.”
We want to be able to hold up something a man does next to something a woman does and say, yes, these two things are exactly the same, and the way we will treat them is also exactly the same. Today, we aren’t there. Katie Hill’s resignation is what accountability looks like — but it’s also what slut-shaming looks like. We can’t celebrate how far we’ve come when we got there by walking backward.