Hill, who was until this week a Democratic congresswoman from California, resigned after admitting to an affair with a campaign staffer, and allegations (which Hill denies) of an affair with a legislative aide. But something more insidious may have also had a hand in pushing Hill out: nude photographs that were intentionally distributed to shame and humiliate her. If we want more young women to run for office – and stay there – the dissemination of nude photos for degradation and revenge is a problem we have to address now.
Let’s get this out of the way: Hill’s affair with the campaign staffer was wrong, and by most accounts, including Hill’s, a major error in judgment requiring serious consequences. Yes, affairs with staffers are nearly as old as campaigns themselves, and men have gotten away with this kind of bad behavior for generations. Several of those men remain in Congress, despite actions far more exploitative than Hill’s. But standards are finally changing to recognize that power imbalances in the workplace distort the ability of subordinates to fully consent to a sexual relationship, and make it even more difficult for them to refuse. Women should be held to these higher standards as well. Hill held herself to them when she stepped down.
Now that she’s taken responsibility and relinquished her seat, the conversation has to shift to what we can do to make sure that no woman sees her political or professional ambitions dimmed by public sexual humiliation. Hill may have resigned primarily because of the affair, but the publication of her photos crossed a real line, and there’s little doubt that at some point in the not-too-distant future a political operative will shop around nude photos of a female politician he would like to take down, no affair with a staffer necessary. That scenario alone probably intimidates women out of running: according to a new report by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, one of the most significant barriers to women running for office is harassment and threats of violence – particularly sexualized harassment and threats – and fear of those threats. The publication of intimate photos, or even images photoshopped to look like intimate photos, is part of the system of abuse and harassment that scares women away from public office.
And among young people, nude photos are a part of life: according to one study, 70% of people age 18-24 had received a nude photo; according to a less-scientific survey of mostly young women by Cosmopolitan, close to 90% had taken one.
While taking nude photos is increasingly normal for both men and women, it’s women who suffer disproportionate consequences when those photos are made public. Women whose nude photographs have been published online without their consent have lost their jobs. Vengeful and abusive exes have used sexual photos to intimidate and threaten mothers in child custody battles. More than half of survivors of what is now known as “revenge porn” have suicidal thoughts – and some have indeed died by suicide.
Men, of course, can be victims of revenge porn, too. But naked photos don’t damage men’s career prospects nearly as significantly as they do women’s, because men don’t face the same penalties women do for being perceived as sexually licentious. Just look at our president, who has five children with three different women – can you imagine a woman with that family makeup sitting in the Oval Office? Make the fictional candidate a black woman, and, with the racist, misogynist stereotypes that would be hurled at her, it wouldn’t even approach possibility.
The sexual shaming and harassment of women is not new. Nor are nude renderings – people have been enjoying erotic images for a very long time (perhaps as long as 37,000 years). It’s not the impulse or even the act of making oneself the subject of that erotica that’s novel; it’s the technology. Smartphones have made it normal to document every aspect of our lives, and so those who grew up with them are unsurprisingly also documenting their naked bodies. Smartphones have also made it much easier to keep and disseminate those images even years after they were taken, as opposed to the relative effort it took to retain and then publicize an old Polaroid picture or a VHS tape – not to mention a cave etching.
But while our technology has advanced dramatically, our views of sexual women have been slower to evolve. Men have some leeway to be both sexual and powerful; women do not. Donald Trump’s lurid affairs were met with a shrug when he ran for president, and he has bragged about his sexual prowess (not to mention sexual assault) to conservative accolades; Scott Brown, who ran against Elizabeth Warren for her Massachusetts Senate seat, posed naked in Cosmo. For women, it’s always a choice between sexual or serious.
Even when we choose serious, the sexual is always hanging in the background, threatening to be used as a cudgel against us. Online trolls superimpose the faces of powerful women on to the bodies of porn actors. Rightwing media outlets have published nude or semi-nude photos of women and suggested they are prominent young Democrats; with the Hill story, the website Rtate went as far as to provide an abusive ex a platform for revenge porn. Last year, the Daily Caller posted an image of a woman in a bathtub, some of her body visible in the faucet’s reflection, under the headline: Here’s the Photo Some People Described as a Nude Selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (it wasn’t). Another image making the rounds on pro-Trump Facebook groups purported to show Ocasio-Cortez being held up by a young man, spread-eagle and laughing (it wasn’t her). In a secret Facebook group, border patrol agents shared a photoshopped image of Ocasio-Cortez giving oral sex to a migrant, with the caption “Lucky Illegal Immigrant Glory Hole Special Starring AOC”; another portrayed Donald Trump orally raping her – something that was supposed to be demeaning to her but flattering to Mr Trump. The website Pornhub features several videos claiming to be secret sex tapes of Ocasio-Cortez (they are not). An entirely innocent video of her dancing to a popular song was released as a smear (it backfired spectacularly).
Sexualizing women is a tried-and-true way of antagonizing and degrading them. Even though nearly 100% of people will have sex at some point in their lives – the overwhelming majority before marriage, often with more than one person over the course of one’s life, and usually purely for pleasure – there remains a pervasive believe that, as the feminist writer Jessica Valenti put it, “[women’s] moral compass lies somewhere between our legs”. Sexual mores have shifted enough that it’s no longer noteworthy if a woman is divorced, unmarried but cohabitating, or single and presumably sexually active. But the second there’s photographic evidence of a sex life, even if those photos were meant to be private and shared only with a partner a woman already trusted enough to have sex with or even marry, and her judgment, morality and dignity are called into question.
Women know this. And as we encourage younger women in particular to run for office, how many are looking at the conservative sites that published Katie Hill’s intimate photos and concluding that a selfie they took years earlier may be a lifelong disqualifier – that they don’t want to risk having their most intimate moments on display to their moms, their neighbors, their colleagues and total strangers? How many are looking at the treatment of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and deciding they don’t want to put their families through that kind of digital abuse?
One would hope that self-styled news websites would have the restraint to not publish misogynist harassment and revenge porn, but too many of the conservative ones have demonstrated they don’t. One would hope social media platforms would remove these kinds of images and ban users who post them; they don’t. We can lecture young women about not capturing nude images at all, but that cat got out of the bag a few thousand years ago – people have always enjoyed sexy images of their paramours, and heaping more sexual shame on women doesn’t solve a problem that is rooted in sexually shaming women.
What might solve it: understanding that the non-consensual publication of nude images is a form of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and then creating serious, consistent penalties for people and platforms that distribute those images. This is where Congress should step in to develop thoughtful legislation that aims to curb these abuses, while also protecting publications’ first amendment rights. The rest of us should step back from blaming the victim – “why did she take that photo in the first place?” – and instead shame and castigate those who engage in such profoundly betraying and misogynist violations. As long as women can be intimidated and humiliated by evidence that we are naked under our clothes, women won’t be equal in politics or anywhere else.