Millennials are gaining power at all levels of American government: Enter, Katie Hill. Millennials are navigating a rapidly shifting landscape of technology, sex, and power: Exit, Katie Hill.
Last year, Hill was one of twenty millennials, most of them women, who won seats in Congress, increasing the generation’s representation sixfold in one cycle and giving voice to the second-largest bloc of eligible voters. This week, she resigned after nude pictures of her “throuple” relationship with a female campaign staffer were released online without her consent, and after she came under a House Ethics investigation for an alleged relationship with a male legislative staffer.
Hill’s case lands smack in the middle of the three-way intersection between tech, sex, and power: Technology has changed sex; sex has changed power; and power is newly vulnerable to strains of disgrace that didn’t exist a decade ago. Technology provides new and humiliating ways to document sexual encounters, and all sexual encounters—especially when they involve a public figure—are now subjected to brutal public dissection. Hill may be the first millennial lawmaker to have to grapple with this particularly thorny 21st century code of conduct, but she won’t be the last.
(Hill, who is openly bisexual, admits to the relationship with the female campaign staffer. She denies the relationship with the male legislative aide, and has accused her “abusive” husband of orchestrating the smear campaign amidst their divorce.)
Since millennials live most of their lives online, it’s only natural that their sex lives have gone digital as well, and Hill was no exception. One 2015 study found that 82% of adults had sexted in the last year, mostly with their partners in a committed relationship. But all those sexual messages can be easily weaponized by disgruntled exes or abusers: a 2016 study from the journal Data & Society found that 1 in 25 Americans—roughly 10.4 million people—have either had their photos posted without their consent or else had someone threaten to do so. For younger women, that figure rose to 1 in 10.
The weaponization of nudes is a 21st century sex crime, one that state and federal officials have done little to address. Hill’s nudes, including one of her combing her campaign staffer’s hair while naked, were leaked to a conservative blog and to the Daily Mail, which forced Hill to admit to the affair and apologize. But for millennials who are young and single in the age of dating apps, leaked nudes may soon become ubiquitous—and could eventually be considered as scandalous as a past divorce or a failed business: just another part of life. “The only person who seems to have a gripe is @repKatieHill’s soon-to-be ex,” tweeted Rep. Matt Gaetz, a millennial Republican who opposes Hill on most political issues but served with her on the Armed Services Committee. “Who among us would look perfect if every ex leaked every photo/text?”
But Hill’s case also illuminates the tricky nuances of workplace relationships in the #MeToo era. The cultural reckoning with sexual harassment has cast a pall over many workplace relationships, and especially those between a boss and a subordinate. According to the new code of ethics, consent is impossible when there is a power imbalance involved. But it’s worth noting that in Hill’s case, no victim has come forward to allege abuse.
She admitted to her relationship with her female campaign staffer Morgan Desjardins (which is unethical and worthy of resignation, but does not necessarily violate House rules because Desjardins is not on her congressional staff) and she’s been accused of having a relationship with legislative staffer Graham Kelly (which Hill has called “absolutely false,” and which would likely violate new House rules preventing sexual relationships between members and staffers), but neither Desjardins nor Kelly has has come forward to accuse her of any misconduct. There is no allegation of coercion, harassment, or abuse: just the fact of one relationship and the allegation of another. If it weren’t for the photos, Hill would likely have been able to ride this out.
Of course, that raises other thorny questions. Can a relationship still be problematic even if neither party says it is? Is the power imbalance alone enough to make it wrong? It’s against House rules to have sexual relationships with congressional staffers, which is why Hill faced an ethics probe into the alleged relationship with Kelly (which she denies.) Would she have faced the same public humiliation if she were a man? Would she have been afforded the same sympathy? “We would never be allowed to take the victim card the way she’s taken it,” said one young Congressman. “This doesn’t pass the ‘shoe on the other foot’ test.”
Ironically, some of Hill’s closest friends have pushed for strengthening House rules on sexual relationships between members and staffers. Rep. Lauren Underwood, who was Hill’s roommate when she moved to D.C., told me in a previous interview that when she got to Congress she had been surprised to learn about the loopholes in these regulations, so she wrote a rule prohibiting members from having relationships with committee staffers. (Hill is accused of an affair with a legislative staffer, not a committee staffer.) She and Hill moved in together to save on costs of housing in DC, since the two millennial lawmakers were both short on cash compared to their older, wealthier colleagues. They posted Instagram videos of their “roomie” struggles with Ikea runs and furniture assembly, and Hill once helped Underwood put a bed frame together with duct tape. (Underwood declined to comment for this story.)
It was this image of a quintessential millennial—scrappy and resourceful, full of youthful chutzpah—that colored Hill’s arrival in Washington. She was considered a rising star in Democratic party that was cultivating a young new bench. She supported climate change legislation and LGBTQ rights, was elected without the help of corporate PACS, and used her social media to needle her political opponents. She and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez teamed up during the government shutdown to track down Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by launching a new hashtag: #WheresMitch.
But Hill’s premature departure from the Capitol also hints at a political peril that is heightened for digital natives like her. “I never claimed to be perfect,” she said in a teary video to supporters. “But I never thought my imperfection would be weaponized and used to try to destroy me.” And yet, the weaponization of imperfection is the defining threat for millennials in public life. So much more is documented for this generation, and therefore so much can be dug up. All of it—nudes, texts with old flames, old Halloween costumes, angry emails, tasteless college jokes—just waiting to be mined and distributed into the court of public opinion.
A uniquely millennial rise, before a uniquely millennial fall.
Correction, Oct. 29
The original version of this story misstated the rule that brought Rep. Katie Hill under an ethics review. It was a rule prohibiting members of Congress from having sexual relationships with members of their legislative staff, not a rule prohibiting relationships with committee staff.
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