In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd concluded her take with a smug mic drop directed at 20- and 30-year-olds everywhere. She warned the iPhone-tethered, social-media-obsessed generation to take heed of the fall of Katie Hill, the former congresswoman representing California’s 25th Congressional District. Hill resigned Oct. 27 after RedState, a right-wing media outlet, published nude photos of her alongside allegations that she was sexually involved with a campaign staffer and a congressional staffer.
But Dowd’s retort, a spin on the popular “OK, boomer” catchphrase meant to dismiss commentary from anyone over 50, reveals that people are not too concerned with Hill’s unethical conduct. Although it’s Hill’s alleged relationship with a male congressional staffer — not her relationship with a female campaign staffer — that violates congressional ethics rules, few outlets give the former much attention. Instead, headlines repeat the salacious details of the latter: Hill’s intimacy with a female partner, her polyamory, her tattoo, a bong.
Dowd argues Hill should have realized the dangers of the digital age and its “shiny new tools.” If Hill adequately protected herself and her data, she wouldn’t have been so vulnerable. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lamented Hill’s carelessness, likening “darling Katie” to “kids in kindergarten.”
Dowd is wrong. The story of Hill’s resignation doesn’t begin and end as a cautionary tale for millennials’ technology use. That is a convenient oversimplification that obscures a far more alarming issue. Hill’s highly sexualized public shaming shows us just how difficult it is for politicians who fall outside the straight-male norm to hold office. Her controversy isn’t a showcase of a generational divide, but a divide exacerbated by the compounding of gender and sexual orientation.
The moment when I heard news of the controversy, I felt similarly to Hill’s critics, angry that the first Democrat to win that seat in 25 years could be so irresponsible. Hill’s unexpected win in a notoriously Republican district made me excited about hometown politics again. She was a 32-year-old bisexual woman who won my hometown of Simi Valley, an LA suburb so white and police-friendly that some argue the 1992 Rodney King trial was strategically relocated there. Hill’s success thrilled me so much that I shot off gloating texts to conservative family members: “Happy Katie Hill Election Day!” After achieving the impossible, how could she foolishly throw it all away?
I realized my first reaction was anger directed at Hill — not at the people who violated her privacy.
A Time Magazine article on Hill cites 2015 research revealing that 82 percent of adults had sexted within the previous year and 10.4 million Americans have had photos shared without their consent. Studies also found that women, as well as lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals, are more likely to be targeted with threats of nonconsensual photo sharing. The problem isn’t that Hill dared to be in intimate photos with romantic partners and failed to protect that intimacy under lock and key. It’s that another person secured possession of those photos — an action illegal under California and Washington, D.C. laws — and distributed them without her consent to political opponents, so they could publicly humiliate her.
Shame doesn’t linger for nude photos of men the same way it lingers for nude photos of women. I wish it did — then I, along with 53 percent of millennial women, could finally rest easy knowing we’d be free from the ubiquitous unsolicited dick pic. The male hobby of sending surprise packages to women’s social media accounts reminds us of the casual, almost comedic nature of men forcing women to look upon their nudity. Conversely, the distribution of women’s private nude photos reminds us that our sexuality is not a point of gleeful pride, but a way for others to leverage our shame. Men’s nude photos will never be weaponized in the same way.
The public feasted on Hill’s femininity and bisexuality in ways straight male politicians are rarely subject to. Media coverage gleefully reuses “throuple” and describes the details of Hill’s positioning in the photos. Hill is white, but for women of color holding office, the sexualization is worse: vulgar Photoshopped images depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez performing oral sex on President Donald Trump still circulate on Facebook, or Amnesty International’s finding that Dianne Abbott, the first black woman elected to the British Parliament, received 45.14 percent of all abusive tweets sent during the 2017 election cycle — tweets detailing imagery of violent rapes and lynchings. Internet harassment that is gendered, sexualized, racialized and homophobic creates a restrictive barrier, built by old-guard politicians and reinforced by the media, that prevents women, people of color, members of the LGBT community and other marginalized individuals from entering the electoral arena. And if they, like Hill, momentarily succeed, it is that same harassment that will drag them out — virtually, verbally or physically.
A few days ago, politics professor Jennifer Piscopo reminded me that blaming Hill for being digitally photographed is akin to blaming a car theft victim for parking in a dicey neighborhood. The blame isn’t on the car theft victim for leaving valuables in their vehicle. The blame falls on the thief who stole a woman’s private photos and laid them out for the world to gawk at. It shouldn’t matter if Hill’s photos were taken using an iPhone, a disposable Kodak or a Civil-War-era collodion setup.
Before we cry out in outrage at Hill’s millennial fallibility, we should first be appalled that a political opponent would stoop so low as to focus their criticism not on a rival’s decision-making, but on the exposing of their naked body. Caution on the part of public figures is wise. However, if we allow ourselves to become engrossed in a surface-level scandal without pause, we fail to identify double standards in the treatment of our marginalized politicians. We misplace accountability, blame the victim and, worst of all, repeat the gendered cycle of inequity.
Emily Jo Wharry is a senior history and politics double major. She can be reached at email@example.com.