Call Katie Hill’s “Scandal” What It Is: Sexual Assault

The Congresswoman resigned after having an affair with a campaign aide, but she’s also a crime victim, and those two facts don’t cancel each other out.
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Former Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) answers questions from reporters at the U.S. Capitol following her final speech on the floor of the House of Representatives on October 31, 2019 in Washington.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Someone asked me to write about Katie Hill,” I told my husband over dinner this week.

“Oh,” he said, “the woman who had the relationship with her staffer?”

“The woman who was sexually assaulted,” I said.

I’m opening here because nothing more neatly sums up the problem with the “scandal” surrounding U.S. Rep. Katie Hill and how it has been reported. The bare details of the case are ubiquitous: The 32-year-old bisexual Congresswoman, who is in the midst of a divorce, resigned after conservative blog Red State Media “leaked” nude photos of the first-term Democrat with a girlfriend, and alleged that she “Involved Female Staffer in 2-Yr ‘Throuple’ Relationship” with her husband.

The girlfriend was a staffer on Hill’s campaign (she’s admitted to that relationship) and Red State has made allegations (which Hill denies) that Hill also slept with a male Congressional staffer. Hill was subject to a House Ethics inquiry of those relationships when she announced her resignation from Congress, and she told The Washington Post she attributed the image leak to “an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me.”

Most people commenting on the case know at least this much, and yet, our takeaway is wildly off-base. We’re so used to blaming women for their own assaults that we’ve focused on Hill’s “inappropriate” actions rather than the fact that she’s been the victim of a legally recognized form of sexual abuse. Nor, for that matter, have many pundits noted that this particular kind of abuse is rooted in bigotry against Hill’s sexual orientation, and is disproportionately directed at bisexual women.

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“Revenge porn” may provide a salacious-sounding hook, but what’s going on, once we peel back the layers, is just standard-issue domestic violence, which commonly involves sexual abuse. In fact, advocates have repeatedly asked news outlets to stop using the “revenge porn” terminology altogether, noting that it confuses people about the nature of the crime.

The word porn implies consent and legitimacy, which is not warranted,” writes one such advocate, Clare McGlynn, a professor of law at Durham University, who argues strongly for the term “image-based sexual abuse.” Its motivations, she writes, “share common characteristics with other forms of sexual crime. Perpetrators act to gain a sense of power and to harm their victim in a way that attacks their identity and self-worth.”

Like any abuse, this kind of sexual shaming and violence carries a heavy long-term cost to the victim, not only in terms of lost jobs or relationships, but in the form of long-term physical and mental health problems. In one survey by the Cyber Civil Rights initiative, 51% of image-based sexual abuse survivors had considered suicide.

Revenge porn” also is a crime in 46 states, including California where Hill and her estranged husband live.

The Cyber Civil Rights survey also includes another relevant detail: 90% of the people who’d experienced image-based sexual abuse were women, and “57% of victims said their material was posted by an ex-boyfriend.” That data tracks with multiple other sources; digital sociologist Elena Sharratt, for example, has found that 43% of image abuse is perpetrated by recent male ex-partners.

If Hill’s husband was indeed responsible for the leak, that’s evidence to her assertion that he was abusive in other ways: “Revenge porn” is not a stand-alone phenomenon, and is often just one manifestation of a long-standing pattern of domestic abuse. Abusers may threaten to release nude photos to control the victim, or simply release them after the breakup to punish the victim for leaving and demonstrate that he can still hurt her, which appears to be what happened here.

Women in positions of power are often sexualized as a way of taking them down a peg.

Yes, it’s wrong to date people in your employ—something Hill has owned, calling the relationship with her girlfriend “inappropriate.” Yet it is extremely unlikely that these same allegations would tank the political career of a man. Married, Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California was caught spending campaign funds on vacations for five of the women he was sleeping with, none of whom were his wife. Hunter not only has refused to resign, he argued that his dates should count as business expenses. Male politicians such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich not only have affairs and bad divorces, they flaunt them, changing wives as often as they change socks. Donald Trump slept with adult film star Stormy Daniels while his wife was pregnant, then paid off Daniels to stay quiet about it, and that’s actually the least disturbing scandal he’s involved in. Former U.S. Sen. Al Franken is alleged to have nonconsensually groped or otherwise harassed nine women, and his partisans still angrily insist he deserved to keep his seat in Congress.

Nor is it likely that this would have happened in the same way to a straight woman, or done the same amount of damage. Even sympathetic pundits have often boiled this down to simple sexism, an illustration of the perils facing “women” in office, and in doing so, they erase a key factor: Hill is not being targeted because she is a woman, she’s being targeted because she is a bisexual woman. The Red State leak specifically emphasized Hill’s sexuality in the headline, and conservative coverage has tended to focus on titillating details of polyamory and threesomes, sometimes by digging up prior relationships of Hill’s that were not with subordinates and have no shock value aside from Hill’s bisexuality. The specific lines of attack used against Hill—hypersexualizing her, stereotyping her as compulsively unfaithful, and reducing her to fetish fodder against her will—are all common manifestations of biphobia.

It helps, here, to keep an intersectional framework in mind: All women are at greater risk of sexual violence or harassment than men, because sexual violence is a key part of how the patriarchy functions, but queer women are targeted more often than straight women, and among queer women, bisexual women are some of the most at-risk. The UN has found that bisexual women face “shocking rates of intimate partner violence, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault,” and one widely cited 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 61% of bisexual women had experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking from a partner, as compared to 44% of lesbian women and 35% of straight women. The CDC’s numbers are optimistic: Nicole Johnson, a Lehigh University professor who has researched intimate partner violence, told the Independent that “up to 75 percent of bisexual women have been raped or sexually assaulted.” And when bisexual women are abused by their partners (those abusers being almost invariably male) they are more likely to experience specifically sexual forms of abuse.

One form of sexual misconduct does not cancel out the other form of assault.

By now, the Hill case should look different to you. Johnson notes that the sky-high rates of sexual violence against bisexual women are rooted specifically in stereotypes about their identities: “The media, and pornography in particular, have long depicted women’s bisexuality as less about sexual agency and more about the pleasure of straight men,” she says, which results in dehumanization and objectification that can lead to abuse, such as creating titillating posts about their love lives and posting nude photos of them without permission. Johnson also points to the stereotype that “[bisexuals] are not to be trusted, which has been linked to intimate partner violence, including sexual violence.”

Women in positions of power are often sexualized as a way of taking them down a peg, whether that be the conservative Daily Caller’s attempt to “leak” fake nudes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the attempt to smear presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris by “exposing” her one-time relationship with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and implying she’d slept her way to the top. Those efforts are always sexist, and always disgusting, but they didn’t destroy the careers of the women in question, and certainly not the way these photos destroyed Katie Hill. The media “scandal” here is not sex, it is specifically sex with women, and the fact that Hill had relationships with both women and men. The image that her enemies have tried to cast her in—predatory, kinky, sexually voracious, deceptive—is the same one that’s routinely used to excuse or incite sexual violence against all sorts of other, less famous bisexual women. In a better world, any member of Congress who had an affair with subordinates would be subject to the same amount of scrutiny and censure. But in this world, Hill is subject to intense and career-ending sexual violence because of who she is. If we excuse the abuse she has experienced, or frame it as punishment for her sins, we also wind up legitimizing similar abuse aimed at women who have done nothing wrong.

Hill need not be a perfect victim to be a victim, and one form of sexual misconduct does not cancel out the other form of assault. What happened to Hill was a crime, it was most likely a crime of domestic violence, and it was beyond a doubt a crime rooted in biphobia. She is not the person with the most reason to be ashamed here. The lasting shame will be that, in a post-#MeToo society, we blamed a woman for her own destruction rather than recognize the assault that was taking place before our eyes.