Salacious allegations published on a right-wing website. A popular Democratic politician admitting an “inappropriate relationship” with a young female staffer. Conservative lawmakers and pundits suddenly deeply concerned about the interaction of sex and power. The exposure of intimate details of two people’s lives to public view, all in the name of ethics in politics.
It’s been more than 20 years since the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky hit the headlines, but there are clear parallels between that scandal and the current controversy over Rep. Katie Hill. The first-term congresswoman resigned after the conservative website RedState and later the British tabloid Daily Mail published nude photos of Hill with a female campaign staffer; the Daily Mail also named the staffer. Hill admitted to having what she called an “inappropriate” relationship with the campaign staffer in the photos and pointed to her estranged husband as the source of the photos and text messages published in the media. Hill has also threatened legal action against the Daily Mail.
The RedState writer who first exposed Hill’s consensual relationship with the young female campaign staffer drew an explicit comparison between the staffer and Monica Lewinsky: “A generation ago, another 22-year-old started a ‘consensual’ relationship with her very powerful boss,” she wrote, quoting Lewinsky’s 2018 reflections about whether the extreme power asymmetries between the president and herself rendered the concept of consent moot.
Other right-wing pundits have rushed to depict Hill as an inconvenient example of liberal hypocrisy over the #MeToo movement. Washington Examiner writer Tiana Lowe called Hill a “villain … who used her stature to begin an improper affair with a subordinate more than a year her junior, and one who expressed fear over Hill’s abusive behavior.” New York Post writer Miranda Devine characterized Hill’s relationship with the campaign staffer as “wrong by any standard of basic human decency. And you can bet that if Hill, 32, were a man and, God forbid, a Republican, the ‘MeToo’ crowd would show no mercy. No man could get away with describing a sexual relationship with a subordinate whose paycheck he controls as merely ‘inappropriate.’ ”
Hill very well may have committed an ethical breach by engaging in a relationship with a subordinate, and concern about the power dynamic between them is justified (indeed, many commentators who have condemned the attacks on Hill have emphasized these points). But much of the supercharged criticism against her is transparently in bad faith, crowding out any reasonable discussion of her behavior.
As Clinton’s opponents did in 1998, these critics thoroughly trample upon the privacy and the dignity of the very woman whose welfare they claim to protect. Those hellbent on driving Bill Clinton out of office, from Matt Drudge to Linda Tripp to Kenneth Starr, were responsible for turning Monica Lewinsky into “the most humiliated person in the world.” Lewinsky herself never made a voluntary choice to go public. Instead, she was tricked, threatened, and forced by Clinton’s political opponents to expose her personal life in intimate detail in front of the entire world so that even now, more than 20 years on, she cannot escape being recognized as “that woman.”
Now, the conservative pundits denouncing Hill’s supposedly predatory behavior are treating the woman they claim is a victim as a prop for their own political purposes. As the #MeToo movement has demonstrated, it is possible to hold the powerful to account for misconduct without further victimizing those involved. In a consensual adult relationship, the only person who can truly attest to abuse or coercion is the victim. Perhaps the staffer had misgivings about how she was treated. But, as with Lewinsky, the staffer did not make the choice to publicize her relationship. Unlike the allegations made against figures like Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Donald Trump, there is not only no nonconsensual conduct alleged, but also no complaining witness. This was the staffer’s personal relationship as well as Hill’s, and revealing her name, her photos, and her private communications without her consent is itself a form of violation.
All of these identifying details and photos have now been splashed across social media platforms and various websites. Tabloids like the New York Post and the Sun are digging into the staffer’s life and background for clicks. According to both RedState and the Daily Mail, there are many more explicit images that they have not published. One GOP operative claimed that he has over 700 photos and other private materials involving Hill.
Responding to criticism that the outlet had published revenge porn, RedState’s editor-at-large Kira Davis wrote, “The powers-that-be decided it was important that there was solid evidence of the relationship(s) that may have violated House ethics (ethics that Hill herself voted for) and have led to an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.” But Hill is not being investigated for her relationship with the campaign staffer who appeared in the photos, as it did not involve a congressional staff member and preceded Hill’s time in office. The investigation by the House Ethics Committee was based on a different allegation published by RedState that Hill had also engaged in an affair with her legislative director. While such a relationship would indeed be a violation of House rules, no evidence has yet emerged to support the allegation beyond a claim made by Hill’s estranged husband.
In a 2014 piece for Vanity Fair, Lewinsky related how, earlier in that year, Republican Sen. Rand Paul had invoked the affair to demonstrate that it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were guilty of a “war on women” because Bill Clinton “had committed workplace ‘violence’ and acted in a ‘predatory’ manner against ‘a 20-year-old girl who was there from college.’ ” Lewinsky cites this as an example of how she continues to be invoked as “a social representation, a social canvas on which anybody could project their confusion about women, sex, infidelity, politics,” as opposed to a person in her own right. This is a fate that no one deserves, and yet it is one that conservatives appear all too eager to inflict upon another woman in order to score political points.
Update, Oct. 31, 2019: This piece has been updated to clarify that Matt Drudge was the writer of the Drudge Report at the time of the Lewinsky scandal.