Defenders of Katie Hill are right to see misogyny and right-wing media malpractice contributing to her resignation from Congress. But in focusing on those factors, they risk looking past the California Democrat’s own actions in engaging in the kind of relationship rendered inexcusable by many proponents of the #MeToo movement and mainstream feminism: one between an older boss and a younger subordinate.
If the goals of these movements are to mean anything, then we must evenly apply principles when women are implicated as well as grapple with the gray spaces here.
Being young (32), new this year in Congress, openly bisexual, and a vocal critic of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had already made Hill a target for opponents and shit-stirrers. This gave someone looking to stir up negative publicity a receptive audience—one that Hill says her soon-to-be ex-husband weaponized, by providing intimate photos and details to RedState and the Daily Mail, showing the couple’s polyamorous relationship with a young woman who worked on Hill's congressional campaign.
The Daily Mail reported that Hill had broken things off with both her husband and the campaign aide in May; that she had left Heslep for Graham Kelly, who is now her legislative director; that she had possibly smoked pot illegally in 2017; and that she had an iron cross tattoo that may be a Nazi symbol.
Hill has sued over the tattoo claim, calling it “false and defamatory,” and denied the affair with Kelly. She admitted to having a relationship with the former campaign aide, who is now 24. That woman was still being paid by Katie Hill for Congress, for fundraising consulting, as recently as September 2019, according to FEC filings.
Last Wednesday, the House Ethics Committee announced that it was aware of allegations that Hill “may have engaged in a sexual relationship with an individual on her congressional staff,” meaning Kelly, in violation of a House rule on employee relationships, and that it was beginning an investigation.
In an email to constituents the next day, Hill apologized for her confirmed relationship with the campaign staffer, writing: “I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment.”
Hill announced her resignation from Congress on Sunday. “This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but I believe it is the best thing for my constituents, my community, and our country,” she wrote in a statement. “This is what needs to happen so that the good people who supported me will no longer be subjected to the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives who seem to happily provide a platform to a monster who is driving a smear campaign built around cyber exploitation.”
No one should have to deal with that—but a consistent approach to sex, power, and culpability still requires, at minimum, considering Hill's own (admitted and alleged) actions here and according her the same agency we do men. Much of the commentary on Hill, however, falls short.
Feminist writer Jessica Valenti said that while Hill’s relationship with the former campaign aide is “unethical” and “arguably worthy of resignation,” it wasn’t actually this relationship forcing Hill out of office but “the explicit photos” being published. “It was,” wrote Valenti on Medium, “‘revenge porn’ that killed her career” and sexist double standards that did her in.
Valenti includes as evidence the fact that Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) is still in office. Hunter is also alleged to have had a consensual relationship with a subordinate, he still has his job, and the House ethics folks have not opened a formal investigation. However, Hunter is under investigation by federal criminal prosecutors, for allegedly misusing campaign funds in conjunction with his office relationships, and the House ethics committee did open an initial investigative subcommittee but was asked by the Justice Department to back off for now. “Ethics panels in Congress routinely defer to the Justice Department when criminal charges are involved,” notes Roll Call.
Besides, Hunter has denied all charges and chosen to fight it. Hill chose to resign—even while denying the one allegation that could have led to her being disciplined by the House ethics committee.
One of Hill's rare defenders on the Hill, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), suggested in a tweet that "Katie isn’t being investigated by Ethics or maligned because she hurt anyone - it is because she is different.”
New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie tweeted that the “big story of Hill’s resignation is the fact that she’s a victim of revenge porn from her ex-husband, published and publicized by a conservative media outlet.”
Again and again, we see people acting like the only real issue in Hill’s case is what has been done to her, not what may have done by her—which sends a confusing message. Hill's campaign aide she admitted to a long term relationship with was not only her subordinate but younger and just starting her career when she met Hill. Doesn't this dynamic fall under those that #MeToo advocates have been telling us to examine more critically? By some accounts, the dumped staffer is now feeling taken advantage of by the relationship with her boss and her boss' husband. Isn't this the sort of thing we've been told to take more seriously?
That the execution of this Hill revelation was horrible and allegedly motivated by a bad actor doesn't erase the legitimate newsworthiness—especially considering the current media climate when it comes to anything involving sex and abuses of power.
Sharing and publishing private photos of someone without their consent is wrong, of course. Shaming over open marriages, polyamory, and other non-majority sexual and relationship practices (or for smoking pot) is lame. And a lot of predatory men have gotten away with things for way too long and still do. But Hill's alleged actions aren't somehow less serious just because she's a woman. And treating them as such risks opponents being right when they accuse #MeToo of being about hostility toward men and attempts to impose for women special rules.
It simply cannot be OK when women bosses hook up with subordinate staffers if it's not fine whoever does it. Nor can it be OK just because others have gotten away with worse.
“Among the enraging aspects of this is how women's consensual sexual conduct continues to be judged so much more harshly than men's nonconsensual sexual conduct,” tweeted law professor Mary Anne Franks of Miami University. "It's not just that @RepKatieHill is leaving office; it's that men who have raped, battered, & harassed women aren’t."
“Let's make a list of all of the legislators who have had affairs with subordinates, sexually harassed people, or otherwise engaged in sexual misconduct but are still in office,” tweeted feminist author Jill Filipovic.
Filipovic followed up her list by clarifying that she wasn't making it "to argue that Katie Hill shouldn’t have resigned” but to “show that there is not a consistent standard on sexual misconduct, and that seems to work in favor of men.”
Franks and Filipovic are right in some ways that should give us pause when considering our cultural and official reactions to relationships like this, where no outright coercion is involved but power is involved. The fact that perceived sexual transgressions are treated more harshly when committed by women—and rigid rules of conduct in general are disproportionately wielded against minority groups—is a good reason to rethink recent attachment to swift, no-nuance proclamations about power-differential relationships, official policies that prohibit them period, and the growing tendency to automatically and unwaveringly vilify such relationships.
Such policies and rigidity will inevitably be used by those with the most power to target women, sexual minorities, people who break gender norms, and others with historically marginalized identities.
Just like we must stop letting men get away with damaging double standards for sexual conduct, we must also hold Hill and all women in power to the same standards as their male counterparts, full stop. That means refusing to minimize or overlook relationships with the kinds of consent and power dynamics that Hill's allegedly had—or else rethinking the rigidity of those standards in the first place and reining in our rush to condemn those accused of crossing them.
But pushing stronger norms against (and punishments for) such relationships while hoping these rules are wielded only against cases you don't like is not a tenable position for those looking to avoid hypocrisy. And it's certainly not a plan likely to work out well over time for women or sexual minorities.