America’s New Frontier: Katie Hill and the Inequality of Scandal

If there’s anything that the American media needs every once in a while, it’s a juicy political sex scandal. Although our interest depends on the circumstances and the individuals involved, we love latching onto these stories and passing judgment on those we believe to be guilty of some sort of unspeakable transgression. If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the past few weeks, you probably know that we’re back at it again, but this time with a female offender: Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA). While Hill’s situation looks about as serious as any other scandal, her position as a victim of revenge porn and the general obsession with the juiciest details of her indiscressions highlight America’s unpreparedness for the volume of female-centered sex scandals that will naturally accompany the growing number of women in politics. 

Hill was one of the many women elected to Congress in 2018 in what was dubbed the “Pink Wave,” and quickly become a rising star within the Democratic Party. Earlier this month, conservative website RedState published a report claiming that Hill and her husband were previously in a sexual relationship with a female campaign staffer, and that Hill had also been having an affair with one of her male Congressional staff members. A subsequent piece on co-written by the author of the RedState article contained several nude photos of Hill, which she maintains were released by her ex-husband. Although Hill admitted to the alleged relationship with the female staffer, she has denied the other affair, which would have violated House rules and spurred an ethics investigation. Wrestling with the political ramifications of these articles, Hill announced her resignation on October 27. 

At first glance, this turn of events doesn’t seem to substantially differ from most political sex scandals. We all remember Anthony Weiner’s infamous text message sexcapades and Al Franken’s shocking #MeToo takedown. In cases like these, the subject is expected to resign and maintain a low profile until the public allows their return to the public sphere. 

Katie Hill’s situation, however, is set apart by the fact that she was forced to endure the violation and degradation that came with having her naked pictures plastered all over the internet without her consent. Indeed, this situation reminds us all of why more and more states are making revenge porn a criminal offense. It is perhaps one of the single most intimate ways to betray a human being, and the very nature of the Internet all but ensures that the humiliation that comes with it never goes away. Even if Hill does decide to make a go for a comeback in the future when this has all died down, she will always be remembered as the naked Congresswoman. 

There’s also the fact that the general public seems more interested in the salacious details of Hill’s life than the seriousness of the allegations against her. After the scandal broke, “throuple” (the term used to describe Hill’s relationship with her campaign staffer), was the most-searched term related to her name, followed closely by “photos” and “uncensored.” In other words, people don’t care about the facts of the scandal as much as they care about getting a peek at a Congresswoman’s breasts. If nothing else, any political influence that she had left was completely undermined by the voyeuristic power given to random people on the Internet. 

The reality is that while we’ve become somewhat numb to sex scandals involving older men, Americans still don’t know how to react when the subject of controversy is a young, attractive, successful woman. Ultimately, the gender of the person facing misconduct allegations shouldn’t matter. We’ve finally started treating allegations against men with the attention that they deserve, and we have to do the same for those against women. Of course, one could argue that Hill’s situation is different from any #MeToo scandal because her encounters were consensual, but as far as the media is concerned, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we’re now so distracted by all of these external, and quite frankly unfair, factors that we can’t even think about the allegations that got us here in the first place. 

There shouldn’t be an attempt to justify anything Katie Hill may or may not have done. The allegations against her are serious, and even if she’s being truthful when she denies an affair with her male staffer, the fact that she admitted to engaging in a sexual relationship with someone working on her campaign is itself problematic and merits her resignation, just as it would if she were a man. But there is plenty of room to say that she faced a level of humiliation that would not have befallen any man in her position, and that alone is unacceptable. Looking forward, if we hope to continue making our politics more inviting to young women, then we need to be able to handle ourselves when a sex scandal involving one of them comes out. If nothing else, Katie Hill has proven that we still have a long way to go.

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