Katie Hill resigned because of revenge porn. This smear's success puts many women at risk.

As more young women are elected to office, more politicians will be vulnerable to this kind of attack.
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By Lux Alptraum

On Thursday afternoon, Katie Hill made her final floor speech to Congress, drawing her brief career as the representative from California’s 25th Congressional District to a close. Once seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, Hill had been in the news recently for her personal life, with rumors, which she denied, that she had had an inappropriate relationship with a congressional staffer, while admitting that she did have one with a campaign staffer. A conservative blog and a British tabloid also leaked naked photos of her online, without her knowledge or permission.

As a freshman representative, Hill entered Congress as part of the most diverse class this country has ever seen. As one of 117 women elected to office in 2018, and one of the few openly queer women to ever hold national office, Hill offered a radically different idea of what American government could look like — and a radically different voice than many of those that had come before her. The attacks that ended her career were a painful reminder of just how vulnerable the change that many of us have been celebrating truly is.

For years, feminist activists have been sounding the alarm about nonconsensually publicized nude photos, also known as “revenge porn,” arguing that women are uniquely at risk of being targeted for public humiliation — and far more likely than men to suffer grave and punitive consequences after experiencing this sort of abuse.

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With Hill’s resignation, that tragic prophecy has come true: The only other member of Congress who has publicly been the target of revenge porn was Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and he stayed in office after the news broke but retired at the end of his term, more than a year later. Yet a woman has been driven from office.

And Hill is not the first female politician whose sexuality people have tried to weaponize against her. In January of this year, Hill’s colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was the target of a fake nude photo scandal, which luckily had relatively little impact.

But Hill is unlikely to be the last. As more young women — women who grew up in the era of camera phones and casual attitudes towards sexting — are elected to office, more politicians will be vulnerable to this kind of attack. Hill's own caucus didn't defend her or her right to stay in Congress: In a closed-door meeting on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly said, “It goes to show you, we should say to young candidates, and to kids in kindergarten really, be careful when transmitting photos," all but blaming Hill for being the victim of a crime. It's that sort of attitude that, as Ocasio-Cortez told reporters, may deter young people from running for office at all.

As a bisexual woman, too, Hill was uniquely vulnerable. Bisexual women face an elevated risk of intimate partner violence, experiencing abuse at nearly double the rate of their heterosexual peers — and yet when they are victimized, the focus is rarely on the crimes committed against them, but instead on the salacious details of their sex lives. Even as Hill came forward to accuse her ex-husband of abuse, the media was far more interested in discussing whether she’d been a part of a three-person sexual relationship that included him and gawking over evidence of her same-sex relationships.

Much has been made by progressives and within the Democratic Party of the importance of creating a Congress that truly represents America — a Congress where women, people of color, queer people, trans people and those who are all of the above have a place, and a voice, in the halls of power. But with Hill’s departure, it’s become clear that it’s not merely enough to elect diverse voices to office.

As long as we continue to hold women to a harsher standard than their male peers, and as long as we allow victims of sexual violence to be shamed while abusers go unpunished, it will always be more dangerous for women to put themselves in the spotlight. And until we figure out a way to protect women from these vile and vicious attacks, and to refuse to let women’s sexual lives and identities be used against them, every woman who dares to speak up and who tries to make change is actively at risk.