Compare and Contrast

Compare and contrast can be fighting words.

You’ve probably heard that freshwoman Democrat from California Katie Hill, age 32, who’d campaigned as “the most millennial candidate ever,” and flipped her suburban Los Angeles district to blue, announced her resignation after less than 10 months in office. She was facing an ethics investigation triggered by a right-wing website, RedState, which published reports that she’d been intimately involved with her legislative director (which she strongly denied) and also separately in a three-way sexual relationship with a young campaign aide and Hill’s estranged husband, Kenny Heslep (which she acknowledged). Heslep had given private photos of personal moments to a tabloid without Hill’s consent after she commenced divorce proceedings.

The young, now former, congresswoman stated that her resignation needed 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.” For a first termer, she was already a rising star, chosen for the fresh-ones class in House leadership, and serving as vice chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, an unusually high-ranking position for a back-bencher. Nancy Pelosi referred to Hill as having a strategic mind and showing enormous promise.

Compare and contrast. The commentators went into a spin. The first female legislator to fall under the MeToo-influenced new House anti-sexual-harassment rules! Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander! Even if it took place during the campaign and not in the House, and even if it was consensual, the employer-employee relationship has the implicit stain of inequality and of coercion. Wait, no, isn’t it really about revenge porn? But she’s no victim, she should be held accountable! Hill herself said the relationship with the campaign aide was “inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment. I’m so sorry.” There,,, you see? Wait, no, would we let Harvey Weinstein off by saying that? No, wait, she’s not trying to be let off. So she’s a lesbian? An admitted bisexual? Well then, it’s all about homophobia! Wait, it’s about men and women! No! Wait! How could she have been so stupid/undisciplined/crazy?

Yet there was a distinctive shift in some of the coverage. Two writers—Molly Roberts of The Washington Post and Lisa Lerer of The New York Times—were among those who reported or commented a number of times on the story, each time with both eyes open and no patriarchal squint—that is, with what some would call feminist bias and I would call 20-20 vision. Compare and contrast.

Roberts noted that the estranged husband stands in a long line of jilted men charging their exes with promiscuity, writing that “The propaganda outlets and peeping Tom tabloids dressed up as newsmakers who helped him have always been proud participants weaponizing women’s sexuality against them. Just as crucially, many of the same men are eager to smear a woman as a slut even as they’re gawking.” And Lerer put the story in context, citing the many guys who have been accused of far worse and stayed in office, focusing in particular on Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, whose district is a little over 100 miles south of Hills’ district, who has been accused of having intimate relationships with his staffers (plural), and is facing criminal charges for stealing campaign funds to pay for his dates with them. But Hunter, far from resigning, is imitating his Boss Trump’s style by attacking the federal indictment as fake news and a rigged witch hunt, and is running for reelection.

Roberts’ and Lerer’s perspectives are part of a hard-won, welcome shift in bringing more nuanced coverage to a story like this, one that’s unfortunate in so many ways, some of which even overlap. Part of the judgementalism launched at Katie Hill is generational, but most of it is plain misogynistic sexism. Her choosing to resign is being accountable and is taking responsibility for this situation—but at the same time it’s a result of being victimized by slut shaming. Online technology is responsible, too, a rough sea we’re still learning to navigate. The exhibitionist culture spawned or unearthed by that technology—wherein one leaves a public visual trail of private behavior lifelong and lots of folks are apparently just fine with that—is also to blame. It could certainly be argued that someone as strategically sharp as Hill ought to have given this some thought, especially since she was running for office. Then again, perhaps she participated in the three-way relationship under pressure from the abusive husband, a dynamic I’ve witnessed in my own life and that of other women. As for the exhibitionist culture, unlike Anthony Weiner, Hill wasn’t the one who sent the photos out. (Personally, though I do care about what people are doing, and their politics, and what they’re reading or writing or what music they’re listening to or performing, I am totally uninterested in photos of them nude or for that matter of what they ate for lunch or their new tooth-whitener. Nor would I ever think of “sharing” at that level. This may be a sign of age on my part or a sign of intelligence. I don’t know, and I’m not even running for office (and never planned to).

But there’s one aspect of the story I still haven’t seen analyzed in any depth, yet it’s the core of what actually happened. Although such so-called exposés evoke prurient interest, they’re never really about sex, any more than sexual harassment or sexual assault are about sex. They’re about power.

There’s the power inherent in an employer-employee relationship, yes. But there are other kinds of power in play here, also, sometimes conflicting, sometimes collaborating, sometimes overlapping, all jockeying for the winning position. Power wielded by the online and print tabloid world (some of whom we’ve learned are financially in bed with Trump and the right wing). Power of the online far right, for that matter, and not only on the dark web, either: a vast power still unchecked and still enabled and protected by the power of Facebook. Power exercised by Katie Hill’s abusive husband, who first gave the private photos to The Daily Mail tabloid in an attempt to destroy his estranged wife who was divorcing him. Furthermore, our societal attitudes about sexuality—women’s sexuality in particular—are still such a boiling stew of confusions, shifts, myths, rules, fears, stereotypes, pressures, and assumptions that a female human being of any age who tries to live a sexually healthy, affirmative, joyful life while neither being harmed nor harming anyone, is accomplishing an operatically heroic achievement when it ought to be the norm.

Katie Hill delivered a ringing last speech to Congress after casting her final vote, in favor of the impeachment inquiry. She pointed to the bitterness in comparing and contrasting her situation with that of Donald Trump, multiply accused sexual harasser and sexual assailant and boastfully self-acknowledged “predator” of women, sitting in the White House. Hill says that she’ll pursue legal action about the photos and that she’s going to spend her time now fighting revenge porn as one of the worst things that can happen to women.

I’m not sure whether she was right to leave or whether she should’ve stayed and fought, but I respect her decision and I wish her all good things. In time, we might find ourselves comparing and contrasting how, ironically, she wound up becoming more effective out of office than in. Then Katie Hill would have come into her own power at last.