In the last week of October, Democratic Rep. Katie Hill of California’s 25th District gave a farewell speech as she resigned following allegations that she had a sexual relationship with a member of her congressional staff. Hill was elected nearly a year ago and was seen as a rising star in the Democratic party. Though Hill resigned after the House Ethics Committee announced an inquiry into the allegations, she maintains her innocence while acknowledging a relationship with a member of her campaign team. Relations between candidates and campaign team members are not covered by House rules.
Despite her denial of sexual relations with a congressional staff member, Hill chose to resign because of the inappropriate nature of her relationship with her campaign staffer. However, her private life was sensationalized by right-wing media, stemming from her estranged husband’s release of nude photos with a campaign staffer. Hill and her husband, Kenny Heslep, are currently in divorce proceedings. This use of revenge porn, or the public release of private sexual media without the consent of those they depict, is a shameful tactic of abuse. It is this abuse — not the affair alone — that led to the outpouring of misogynistic rhetoric against Hill and her female staffer. The double standard that Hill was subjected to throughout the ordeal is a demonstration of the hardships that women have to endure when they obtain positions of power.
Hill’s resignation resulted from her acknowledgment of what she views as an inappropriate relationship with a campaign staffer. While her decision to engage in such a relationship may have been misguided, the actions of her estranged husband deserve more scrutiny. Not only is revenge porn illegal in many states, including California, but it is also a clear violation of Hill’s privacy and dignity. Heslep’s actions are far more shameful than Hill’s and are far more deserving of criticism and legal reprimand. Yet, when the photographs were first released, right-wing websites such as RedState spread the images in an attempt to smear Hill’s reputation. The abusive nature of these actions cannot be overstated. Hill’s estranged husband violated her as an individual in an attempt to blackmail her. Far-right media outlets then pounced upon this violation, publicizing her intimate moments as a means of invalidating her and her position of power.
Hill’s circumstances bring to light the significant media presence of new generations of politicians that will be elected. Because these new politicians are growing up with modern technology, social media begs the question if we will become desensitized to intimate content being released. Given that the internet personalizes politicians and how social media platforms such as Twitter are one way for people to connect with and understand leaders, our puritanical standards for politicians may need to change. We must also question our cultural standards, and possibly lower our high social standards of politicians, as more and more elected officials will most likely have promiscuous content somewhere online. It also needs to be further discussed how we hold officials accountable. Where do we draw the line between being silly and inappropriate on the internet? There needs to be recognition that the internet has a strong influence on politicians’ images, and could easily cause trouble for them in the future.
It is also integral to note that women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people will face the brunt of this transition. Minority groups are often smeared when it comes politics and face significantly more criticism online. We have seen instances of past videos and photos reemerge, such as the leaked video of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., of her dancing in college while wearing conservative clothing, for which her clothing was criticized for being “too nice for a girl who struggles.” Former president Barack Obama was criticized for a tan suit he wore, due to claims of the “lack of seriousness” and that it was an inappropriate and disrespectful appearance. Many media platforms have noted that Hill identifies as bisexual, and how that specific part of her identity contributes to the controversy.
There were several ethical issues with regards to Hill’s intimate relationships during her time as a representative, as power dynamics of intra-office relations should be carefully monitored. It should be known that regardless of technology or social media, there is a degree of professionalism that needs to be endorsed. However, the manner in which her mentally-abusive husband and right-wing media worked in concert to ruin her reputation is clearly an act of premeditated abuse. These actions mimic what has been seen before with current and former politicians, which reminds the public to be aware of young people entering office and the lasting digital footprints they leave. With this in mind, it demands us to think about what our internet history says about our elected officials and in forming our digital standards.