Last week, Aaron Coleman was declared the winner of a Democratic primary for a Kansas House seat. Coleman, a 19-year-old who cites Bernie Sanders as an inspiration and ran on a platform of defunding the police, free college, and single-payer health care, defeated a long-time incumbent by 14 votes. But after national outrage he withdrew on Sunday, blaming “feminism”—and what he believed was a demand that elected officials be faultless—for his decision.
It isn’t that people want their representatives to be perfect—that’s impossible, and such a bar would, and has, stopped plenty of potential leaders from running at all. But Coleman’s history matters here: He has admitted to not just one, but several instances of bullying, cyber-exploitation, and blackmail of multiple young girls when he was 14.
Shortly after his primary win, the Kansas City Star spoke to a number of Coleman’s victims, one of whom said she was driven to a suicide attempt after his unrelenting and cruel harassment. Another said that Coleman got a hold of one of her nudes and blackmailed her, saying that if she didn’t send him more, he would send it to all of her friends and family. She didn’t, and he made good on his threat. A third victim describes behavior by Coleman that appears to classify as stalking under Kansas state law. All of them have spoken about their re-traumatization and their horror at the idea that their abuser could hold any form of power, much less elected power in office.
Cyber-exploitation—commonly and problematically known as “revenge porn”—is pervasive, and has impacted the lives of at least 10 million Americans. I’m one of them. And although 46 states and Washington, D.C., now have laws against it, lawmakers were slow to enact legislation even as the crime’s regularity became more pronounced—and there is still no federal law against it. It wasn’t until 2016 that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed HB2501, outlawing cyber-exploitation in the state. Under that law, which was enacted a year after his attacks on young teenaged girls, Coleman might have been charged with Aggravated Unlawful Transmission of a Visual Depiction of a Child, defined as:
Knowingly transmitting a visual depiction of a child 12 or more years of age but less than 18 years of age in a state of nudity: (A) With the intent to harass, embarrass, intimidate, defame or otherwise inflict emotional, psychological or physical harm; (B) for pecuniary or tangible gain; or (C) with the intent to exhibit or transmit such visual depiction to more than one person; and (2) when the offender is less than 19 years of age.
He may even have faced an additional charge of blackmail, which was redefined in the same 2016 law, to describe precisely what Coleman did to his victim. According to the state’s sentencing guidelines, these charges could call for at least 18 to 36 months at a juvenile detention facility plus six to 24 months of after-care.
Instead, Coleman appears to have received no consequences or reform efforts whatsoever. He recently wrote a relative of one of his victims, informing them, “At this point you shouldn’t move on for me, you should move on for yourself.” Moving on for him included running for governor as an Independent at the age of 17, then for the Board of Public Utilities, and most recently for the state legislature.
I don’t know Coleman, but I know what message his campaigns send to cyber-exploitation perpetrators, the majority of whom are men: that their acts towards another human being are seen as no big deal to the broader American public, and that they are still qualified to serve as elected leaders—and perhaps even vote on or block laws like HB2501.
Meanwhile, what lesson did these girls learn? And what message does Coleman’s primary win send to cyber-exploitation victims everywhere? The abuse they went through has likely haunted them, made them want to hurt themselves or worse, shattered their self-esteem; and only they will know what other lasting impacts their abuser’s “mistake” has had on their lives.
When I resigned from Congress, I talked about a double standard—of course, many men since have questioned whether it even exists. Let me lay it out plainly now:
Cyber-exploitation is a crime. As a victim and a woman, I resigned, feeling at the time that it was the best way to try to stop the ongoing abuse and to take responsibility for my own mistakes. And time and time again, we have seen male perpetrators who don’t even hesitate to run for office, and in fact feel entitled to those seats and that power.
That, my friends, is a double standard at work.
Another double standard? The “just a kid” rhetoric that plenty of men, including self-styled progressives, have invoked in Coleman’s defense. “My take on this... is that you should not hold against an adult what they did in middle school,” The Intercept’s D.C. bureau chief, Ryan Grim, wrote on Twitter. His colleague Glenn Greenwald agreed, saying that the resignation came “after days of being told by the internet that he's an irremediable piece-of-shit, worthless human & child pornographer because of what he did when he was 13”—notably, Coleman self-identified as being 14 at the time of the crimes—and lamenting that this development means “likely sending the anti-choice corporatist [Stan S. Frownfelter] to his 8th term.”
Few of the people defending Coleman speak to or seem to consider Coleman’s victims—and none of them are qualified to forgive the 19-year-old on his victims’ behalf. Only the young women themselves can do that, if they want to at all. Some of the victims’ statements indicate that they don’t:
“I don’t think he has a right to have any kind of power.”
“I don’t know why he’s not being held accountable.”
“He should not be allowed to run for anything.”
As I talked about in my new book, She Will Rise, I have reflected on the mistakes I made. I know that my actions hurt people, and I resigned from my position of power to do the necessary work. For me, that included founding Her Time, a PAC committed to supporting women in running for office, especially as they face their doubts and fears that their pasts may be used against them, as mine was.
Would the girl whose photo Coleman weaponized against her just five years ago have considered running for office? Probably not, knowing those images are out there. Would the girl who he bullied run? Her trauma and self-doubt would likely never allow her to even consider such a thing. Part of my ongoing work is to ensure victims of cyber-exploitation know that there is a place for them in our politics, and support them if they decide to jump in.
Coleman has said repeatedly that he wants to make amends. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting him to withdraw at all and am glad that was the outcome. He did the right thing to step out, and hopefully he does reflect and grow and do a better job of one day taking responsibility. But his resignation tweet proves that he in no way takes responsibility for the abuse he inflicted on at least three girls. And it is disheartening that self-proclaimed progressive men are still just as blinded by sexism as so many were in 2016.
Maybe these men are defending him because they relate to Coleman in some way. Maybe it’s because they value political ideology above human beings. Maybe it’s because of their deeply ingrained, unconscious belief that white men are somehow to be forgiven for their actions without having to show any real remorse or recovery. Maybe it’s everything. Regardless, when someone wants to hold a position of power, things like abusing women should matter—even for white men.