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Katie Hill's Scandal Shows The Inappropriate Power Given To Sexual Images

Katie Hill's Scandal Shows The Inappropriate Power Given To Sexual Images

Former Representative Katie Hill resigned last week after a short scandal involving an unusually modern mix of a throuple, an extramarital affair, bisexuality, and marijuana. But perhaps the most contemporary, 'sign of the times', technologically 'with it' aspect of the entire scandal a single image of a fully nude Hill holding a bong. The image is one of a series of photos of Hill published by {insert publication} in various stages of undress with one of her lovers, a younger female staffer, which together sealed Hill's fate in the House. But the image of Hill with a bong is the most explicit of the bunch. Upon publication, Hill immediately filed a lawsuit against the {insert publication} alleging that the publication of the photo series constituted an act of revenge porn by her husband, who had supplied them. Her team went to work spinning the story as best they could into a tale of yet another victimized woman in the #metoo era. But the damage had already been done.

The bong photo was immediately iconic. It is the latest addition to the pantheon of sexually explicit photos that have brought down politicians. As a cultural object, the semiotics of the image imply references to Anthony Wiener's dick pics, former Rep. Chris Lee's mirror selfy, and former Senator Al Franken's groping photo. While it is perhaps the most challenging of all to the prudish American sensibilities surrounding sex in the public sphere, Hill's naked bong photos is also perhaps the most convincing evidence yet of the triumph of the power of images over words in the realm of political sex scandals. The words of victims and defenders matter little these days. They are easily dismissed as just another case of the he-said-she-saids that can be conveniently ignored with few long-term political repercussions. But a picture is worth a thousand accusations.

The point that words matter far less than images in the era of social media is brought home by the fact that many current congressmen and the president himself are accused of various sexual predations. Yet they remain in positions of power at least in part because there are no photos. As Katie Hill herself pointed out in her fiery resignation speech, "I'm leaving, but we have men who have been credibly accused of intentional acts of sexual violence and remain in boardrooms, on the Supreme Court, in this very body and worst of all, in the Oval Office." And she is correct. The list of current politicians who are accused of sexual misconduct of some form is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, depending on your level of cynicism) long. At least two of them are still in the House of Representatives: Rep. Mark Meadows [R-NC11], Rep. Alcee Hastings [D-FL20]. 

While many other Representatives have resigned for sexual misconduct in recent years, the fact that at least two such current Representatives have not resigned speaks to the deeply troubling and potentially perverted way sex and sexual assaults are handled by powerful people. Politicians seem to react to visual stimulation more than auditory stimulation. Describing their colleagues in words garners at most some pity and a few awkward mentions in the press. But show an American politician a photo of a colleague in a sexually provocative situation or, even better, naked, and suddenly they cannot abide by such depravity. The lesson here is that the current crop of the political power class is affected by images far more than words. Perhaps that is not unsurprising given the rise of smartphones. Images of personal sexual activity used to be easier to control and the creation of such content was relatively rare. Leaks of such content were rarer still. The powerful are by and large still reacting to the imagery of digital culture from a pre-digital perspective because they are still grappling with the changes that the technological revolution has brought about from a pre-digital perspective.

The conclusion of this line of reasoning based on the evidence from the political history of the past 15 years is that, currently, any victim of sexual predation by the power class who wants to be heard must also be seen. To put it another way, not only must victims verbally disclose the most humiliating, intimate, and traumatic details of their private lives to the public at the highest levels of world power and government, they must also back up their words with images of the act, images that they might personally find humiliating and traumatic, if they want to secure the brutish form of polite, gossipy, mob justice that is available to them. In many cases, a victim must bare their bodies (or the bodies of their abusers) for all to see so that we may judge their bodies (which is itself an act of mass violation perpetrated by the public on an individual) if they wish to have a shot at securing justice for an arguably lesser trauma. And in cases of revenge porn, where such mass viewing of bodies is itself the trauma perpetrated upon the victim, as was the reality in Katie Hill’s case, the power class will not look away, dismiss the images, or prevent the images from wreaking havoc on a politician’s career and life in general. If the images are available to be seen, they will be viewed even if viewing them is a harmful act. But if the images are absent and only words are available, the victim will be disregarded. In other words: pics or didn't happen, young staffer. 

Hill's bong photo also provoked a generational debate. For millennials, the image is an 'OK boomer' moment. Many Millenials have photos of themselves on their phones that they wish to keep private. The ubiquity of pornography on the internet, the ease of procuring sex with strangers via apps, and even the rising tide of secret spy cameras in bathrooms, bedrooms, and changing rooms - all of these are realities of a digital world in which images of nudity and sex are pervasive and normal. However, the current power class of America is composed mostly of non-millennials, older generations who may not be as comfortable with images of sex and nudity. The question that many Millenials have for older generations in the case of Katie Hill is: what’s the big deal?

On the other hand, many older people who react to these images with the same perturbation as the older power class question whether Millenials are really all that different than themselves when if comes to reacting to explicit imagery. Writing for the New York Times, Maureen Dowd had this to say after a younger colleague in her office accused her of having an “OK boomer” moment when it came to the Katie Hill incident: “What I learned from studying Shakespeare is that the primary colors of emotions carry through the centuries. There will always be vengeful exes and envious allies and ruthless opponents and double-crossing friends. Whether the messages are being carried by pigeons or pixels, you have to protect yourself — and your data. Don’t let our shiny new tools blind you to the fact that some horrible truths about humanity never change. And don’t leave yourself vulnerable by giving people the ammunition — or the nudes — to strip you of your dreams. OK, millennials?”

Dowd is on to something. There is ample evidence that Millennials care about their nude pics and the nude pics of their colleagues and classmates just as much as other generations. Millennials have lost jobs, been ostracized by friends, shamed, and otherwise traumatized when their nude pics get leaked. At the same time, people do move on. Not everyone loses a job, a spouse, or a dream because their nude pics escape into the digital universe. There is also something strange about watching older generations react to a picture of someone most Americans have never met that is a bit strange. Forcing Hill to resign feels like an overreaction because, from the point of view of someone who is outside of the Washington sphere, many younger Americans cannot see why the images would warrant her resignation? What political power does she really lose by having these photos out there? In the end, the moral problem concerns her extramarital affair, not the existence of the nude images, and everyone knows that politicians cheat on their spouses all of the time. To force someone to resign over sexual images seems like a strange form of slut-shaming.

The truth is hard to disentangle from the mess of cultural changes that America is undergoing at the moment. The reality is that only time will tell whether images of naked bodies will lose their political power and join the words in the discard pile of human caring. Perhaps Millennial politicians will no longer care about images and videos in the future just as boomers do not care about a victim’s words today. Or perhaps the future generations will elevate words back to their rightful place in the realm of evidence that some wrong has been committed and must be investigated. Whatever happens, the image of Katie Hill naked and holding bong in her hand will go down as one of the symbols of our confused era. Her final words stand true against all judgment: “Yet a man who brags about his sexual predation, who has had dozens of women come forward to accuse him of sexual assault, who pushes policies that are uniquely harmful to women and who has filled the courts with judges who proudly rule to deprive women of the most fundamental right to control their own bodies, sits in the highest office in the land.” 

Unfortunately, in Washington, words do not matter. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is the bankrupt moral code by which politicians fall.