A few weeks ago, California Rep. Katie Hill was considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. On Sunday, she announced her resignation from Congress, amid news that the House Ethics Committee was investigating highly publicized allegations of an inappropriate relationship Hill had with a staffer in her congressional office. Hill denied that relationship, though she did admit to having a consensual relationship with a campaign staffer during her winning 2018 campaign. The entire affair is further complicated by the fact that Hill is in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from her estranged husband, Kenny Heslep, whom she alleges was abusive — and whom she has also claimed is the source of the accusations against her.
As the allegations against Hill broke in national media, The Daily Mail and the conservative blog RedState published barely censored nude images of the congresswoman, along with screenshots of texts that she’d sent about her drinking and mental health in confidence to her then-husband. Hill — who proudly ran for Congress as a young, openly bisexual, Millennial woman — was suddenly having her sexuality fetishized in headlines that seemed obsessed with not the idea of her potentially having an unethical relationship, but rather with the nature of the acts themselves.
“The fact is I am going through a divorce from an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me,” Hill said in a statement to The Washington Post days before she ultimately resigned. Unfortunately, it appears the shame strategy succeeded.
In an emotional letter of resignation and subsequent video statement, Hill attempted to communicate that she was not resigning because of the relationship allegations, but rather because of the revenge porn smear campaign that had been launched against her.
While it is perfectly reasonable to debate whether or not Hill should have ultimately resigned, given the two alleged questionable relationships — the one she acknowledges with a campaign staffer, and the one she denies with a staffer in her congressional office, which would be in violation of newly passed House rules — there is a separate point of concern here. Bad-faith vigilante campaigns launched to humiliate someone are not a substitute for an ethics investigation.
Shaming a congresswoman with public, personal attacks until she eventually leaves office not only undermines the systems America has put in place, it also sends a terrible message to other “imperfect people” — a.k.a. everyone — who might consider running for office. That goes double for those who have sexted, identify as an orientation other than heterosexual, or lead active sex lives more generally.
To that end, consider what this whole affair looks like to a young person, one who grew up with technology and treats their phone like a natural appendage. These people may also have a different relationship to sexting or other such conduct than older generations: In 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that more than 1 in 4 teenagers reported that they’d received a sext; more than 1 in 7 reported sending a sext themselves. These young people would eventually be America's next generation of politicians.
Jeff Temple, the director of behavioral health and research and University of Texas Medical Branch, told Mic that this sort of explicit messaging is essentially normal among younger people, and is generally acceptable as long as it is consensual. “Teens and Millennials are less likely to distinguish between the online and offline world. The lines between them are not only blurred, but sometimes completely wiped away,” Temple says. “When they think of sexting, they don’t tend to think of it as a big deal.”
Temple also points to a conversation he had with Dan Savage on the Savage Lovecast podcast in 2014, where they talked about how a few decades ago a politician admitting they had smoked pot as a teenager could ruin their political career. Temple, 43, says that at the time he and Savage predicted the same stigma might apply to sexting or having taken naked pictures.
Temple adds that the same sexual double standard that has always existed along gender lines seems to extend to trading explicit messages. This dynamic, he says, has certainly played out in Hill’s case, as she’s been shamed and attacked by outlets who are failing to also question the conduct of someone who would release those private images without her consent. (It also begs a comparison to male lawmakers who have not faced such consequences for similar conduct.)
“It’s so similar to what we see in schools, where a girl might send a picture to a boyfriend who she trusts, and he sends it around, and she's the one who gets identified and embarrassed and oftentimes in trouble,” Temple says. And indeed, while The Daily Mail and RedState have reported on Hill’s supposed misdeeds, neither one has really scrutinized her ex-husband’s alleged violation of her privacy. (Heslep has declined to comment on the story to a variety of outlets, though his father told BuzzFeed News late Wednesday that Heslep had said he "was hacked" before the intimate photos of Hill were published.)
Again, Hill has denied the relationship with the congressional staffer — the one that would’ve broken chamber rules enacted in the wake of the #MeToo movement. As for the relationship with the campaign aide, she acknowledged that it existed and conceded, “I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgement.” But neither relationship has really been the center of the issue; instead, the shaming has focused on speculation about Hill's private life.
That may not fly for the next crop of candidates. Temple says sexting has been in a sense “normalized” as a healthy part of sexual expression for younger generations. For that reason, there is likely less sexting stigma among that group. “People tell teens, ‘Don’t send naked pictures, you’re going to be arrested for child porn, it's going to ruin your career,’” Temple says. “They know all that. The reason that doesn’t stop them is because teens all around them are sexting, and those consequences are happening to basically zero of them.”
While Hill’s photos and details of her personal life were being leaked to the media, her conservative critics suggested that she should resign because the mere existence of these sorts of photographs made her susceptible to blackmail.
But that risk is not inherent to naked pictures or screenshots of sexts. It is dependent on society as a whole deeming those sorts of actions immoral. As technology advances, and we continue to depend on it for things like shopping, socializing, and dating, it may be time for us to take a hard look at whether things that were controversial 10 years ago really matter that much anymore.
After all, the media has the power to define what is newsworthy. Perhaps instead of focusing on consensual sexting, we should instead protect one’s right to privacy, and not reward such intimate violations by blaming the victim. It might be more productive for the conversation to focus on breaking down that stigma, rather than reinforcing it — and it would show aspiring politicians a more welcoming career path.
If the House Ethics Committee had found that Hill’s conduct violated her oath of office and recommended she resign, the whole thing would have been easier to swallow. But we don’t know much about the content of the panel’s investigation into Hill. In announcing the freshman congresswoman’s decision to resign, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement saying Hill “came to Congress with a powerful commitment to her community and a bright vision for the future,” but that she had “acknowledged errors in judgment that made her continued service as a member untenable. We must ensure a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces.”
No matter what, the smear campaign that pushed her out of Capitol Hill was not a proper substitute for the House ethics process. Hill may not have led a perfect personal life, but she was apparently a victim of revenge porn — and that’s a real crime.