Is Katie Hill a victim?
The freshman Democrat from California was one of the celebrated young female members of the congressional class of 2018. Praised for winning a seat that had been held by Republicans since the 1990s and for her woke personal story (she was the first openly bisexual member of Congress), political observers called her “one of the most impressive Democratic contenders of 2018.” Though she didn’t enjoy the visibility of “the Squad,” she won a plum assignment on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and seemed poised to become a young Democratic leader on the Hill.
All of that promise vanished last week when stories surfaced in a conservative news site, RedState, that Hill (who is embroiled in a contentious divorce from her husband) had been engaged in a “throuple” relationship with her husband and one of her campaign staffers. Intimate pictures of Hill topless and holding a bong, as well as others of her sitting naked and brushing the hair of the campaign staffer, later appeared in the Daily Mail.
Hill was also accused of having an affair with her legislative director (and of paying him a large bonus), which she has denied. If true, these would be violations of #MeToo-era directives against members of Congress getting involved with their staff. The Ethics Committee had announced an investigation into her behavior.
In the immediate aftermath, Hill seemed determined to hold on to her seat, vowing to fight the “smear campaign” targeting her. But early this week, she announced that she would resign (although she did not say when the resignation would occur).
In a video announcing her decision, however, there was little acknowledgment that it was her own behavior that set the scandal in motion. Instead, Hill claimed she was leaving so that her staff and constituents and family will no longer have to experience “the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives.”
She blamed her downfall not on her own misguided behavior, but on a “coordinated campaign carried out by the right-wing media and Republican opponents enabling and perpetuating my husband’s abuse by providing him a platform,” something she deemed “disgusting and unforgivable and they will be held accountable.”
She went on to praise her own election because “We proved that an imperfect woman . . . has a place in the people’s house.” Then she vowed to “take up a new fight. I will fight to ensure that no one else has to live through what I just experienced. Some people call this electronic assault, digital exploitation, others call it revenge porn. As the victim of it, I call it the worst thing we can do to our sisters and our daughters.” Hill held herself up as a role model for young women everywhere. “I will not allow my experience to scare off other young women or girls from running for office. For the sake of all of us we cannot let that happen.”
Hill thinks reinventing herself as the Joan of Arc of revenge porn will distract people from judging her unprofessional behavior as a Congresswoman. It’s a narrative left-leaning media outlets have rushed to embrace. One headline in HuffPost read, “Katie Hill Is Not Accused of Committing a Crime. But She Might Be a Victim of One.” Left Twitter erupted with complaints that it was unfair for Hill to resign because political operatives had “weaponized” her acrimonious divorce.
A columnist for the Los Angeles Times complained that, although Hill “messed up,” she shouldn’t have had to resign. “If indeed she had a sexual relationship with a staffer in her congressional office, that should have earned a slap on the wrist for the 32-year-old Democrat.” Her reasoning? “For decades, male lawmakers got away with those sort of shenanigans. Wouldn’t you know it, the first one to fall afoul of the rule is a woman, and a bisexual woman, at that,” implying that Hill’s sexual orientation was the reason she was being held accountable for her behavior.
This is an odd rationale given how often the public has been told that calling abuses of power mere “shenanigans” is precisely what allowed habitual (male) sexual predators to roam free for so long. Other Hill supporters thought her behavior was fine because everyone involved was a consenting adult, ignoring the fact that power imbalances between members of Congress and their staff preclude truly equal relationships.
In other words, people sympathetic to Hill’s politics are bending over backward to justify behavior that, had it been committed by a Republican man, would have earned rightful disdain.
The anatomy of Hill’s victimhood claim is also suspect.
Hill has repeatedly (and without any evidence) claimed her husband has “abused” her. In one of her earlier statements to the press, she said, “During the final, tumultuous years of my abusive marriage, I became involved in a relationship with someone on my campaign . . . I am going through a divorce from an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me.”
She also denounced the political opponents who “happily provide a platform to a monster,” claiming her denouement came only as the result of a “coordinated effort to try to destroy me” and a “smear campaign” against her by the “right-wing media.” There are hints of Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” rhetoric in Hill’s self-pitying claims and attempts to deflect attention from her own behavior by attacking those who made it public.
But who, exactly, has victimized Hill?
She is clearly the victim of whoever made public deeply private images of her. Whoever shared those explicit images of her without her consent is in violation of a California revenge porn law and should be prosecuted.
But as for the implosion of her Congressional career, it wasn’t a patriarchal institution or a right-wing conspiracy that accomplished that: it was Nancy Pelosi. As the Washington Post noted, Pelosi “indicated it was right for her to resign—even before an ethics investigation in Congress concluded.” Pelosi said in a statement that Hill “has 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.” This is a pretty straightforward denunciation of Hill’s behavior; if she’s a victim, then what does that make Pelosi?
A chastened Hill could have acknowledged her errors of judgment and poor behavior, resigned, and then advocated whatever causes she wants to as a private citizen. But by embracing victimhood and refusing to take personal responsibility, all while claiming to be the victim of a right-wing conspiracy against her, she doesn’t look like a bold and trailblazing young woman. She looks like a fool. “I never thought my imperfections would be weaponized and used to try to destroy me and the community I’ve loved for my entire life,” Hill said. Perhaps age will bring Ms. Hill some wisdom, and she’ll eventually realize that her abuse of power and insistence on playing the victim are a little more than mere “imperfections.”