On Sunday evening, Congresswoman Katie Hill announced her resignation following a horrific week in which photos of her consensual sexual relationships were published in right-wing tabloids. These photographs, she says, were leaked by her estranged husband Kenny Heslep and weaponized amid messy divorce proceedings (Heslep has yet to publicly respond.) This accompanied allegations that Hill had inappropriate relationships with a staffer on her congressional campaign and in her DC-based office, something she denies. Rather than endure an ethics investigation that would inevitably amplify the images being circulated, she chose to resign and put her constituents first.
It is not my place — nor that of anyone — to defend Katie Hill’s alleged inappropriate (albeit consensual) sexual relationships with subordinates, but this situation does illuminate some undeniable facts. Firstly, that women in elected office are held to entirely different standards than their male colleagues; secondly, that bisexuality continues to be maligned and erased from broader cultural conversations; and thirdly, that women, no matter their place in society, continue to have their reputations destroyed by the horrific practice of public sexual shaming.
At the time of this writing, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, has been accused by at least 23 women of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by former staffer Anita Hill during his 1991 confirmation hearing. His colleague Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual assault by at least four different women, notably Dr Christine Blasey Ford, Julie Swetnick, and Deborah Ramirez. Congressman Scott DesJarlais had affairs with patients under his care and appears to have unethically prescribed one of them opioids. Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax has been accused by one woman of sexual assault and by another of rape. All of these men have denied the allegations against them while others have called for them to resign. Despite calls for them to at least undergo investigation, all remain in power, most of them making decisions that directly affect the lives of women.
Katie Hill is a not a predator. She is not a rapist or sexual assailant or sexual harasser. Her crime is far worse than that in our society: she is a woman — a bisexual woman at that — who has lived beyond the ludicrous, impossible restraints we put on women’s sexuality, particularly those in the public eye. Men in power, particularly white men, are permitted a hero’s journey in their indiscretions, a moral arc in which they can make mistake after mistake — because even the most horrible transgressions are called “mistakes” when you’re a white male — and transcend to a higher plane of humanity that better informs their leadership style. Women who transgress even slightly are pilloried and burned at the public stake as an offering to whatever moral gods our society supposedly worships.
I am not saying that Katie Hill didn’t show a serious lack of judgement. Any sexual relationship with a subordinate is almost always unethical, and in the times it is not — when such a relationship has been made transparent and affirmed — it still may lead to ethical complications that puts those in the relationship, and those around at them, at risk. It would have been right of her to publicly apologize for this lack of transparency and ensure a fairer course moving forward.
Every person who condones the actions that led to this public fallout is part of the problem. We want women, particularly those in power, to not be frigid but also not have warm blood in them. We want women to present attractively but not to be too attractive, and we expect them to know the location of that thin line as it relates to our individual preferences. We want women to be saintly but also slutty, depending on whatever arbitrary mood we happen to be in and never once considering that the two might be complementary and overlapping positive qualities in a woman, as they apparently are in men. This is particularly true of queer woman, especially bisexual women, who are not permitted to have healthy relationships with both men and women beyond the pornographic fantasies in which we have contextualized them.
This is why the violent manner in which Hill has been slandered feels particularly heinous: there are men in this world who don’t believe women should be permitted to “have it all”, let alone any degree of independent, healthy intimacy. That is a loss of control for such men. And it is far easier for those men to either erase the existence of bisexual women or pretend they only exist in porn to please them.
Katie Hill is not being held accountable for having an alleged sexual relationship with a subordinate. She is being thrown upon the pyre because she is a woman who has consensual sex outside of society’s rigid expectations for her gender. She is being castigated in order to make men feel a little more comfortable in the quickly evolving world in which they find themselves getting away with far less while those who do not look like them gain ever more power. Men are exemplified; women are made examples.