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31 October 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:28pm

Katie Hill’s resignation exposes the power of rape culture

What happened to her shows how female sexuality is so often weaponised against women.

By Caroline Reilly

Sex is, for some absurd reason, still taboo; female sexuality – the expression of it, the admission of it, the indulgence in it, is even more so. These puritanical social mores are deeply imbued in conversations about the taking and sharing of nude photos – which has been ever apparent surrounding the resignation of congresswoman Katie Hill this week.

Over the weekend, the freshman California representative announced her resignation; she is stepping down after right-wing news sites released private photos of Hill and a woman who was identified as a campaign staffer. 

Hill conceded that the relationship with her staffer was inappropriate, but says it was her abusive ex-husband who released the photographs as part of a hostile divorce; he also alleged she had a separate affair with an aide, which Hill denies and which, despite not being supported by evidence, became the subject of a House ethics committee investigation. 

A lot has rightly been said both about the obvious ethical breach involved in sleeping with someone over whom you have professional power and the excruciatingly apparent double standard exercised when a woman in power crosses this line vs a man. 

But the subject of nude photos of Hill, non-consensually shared by her ex-husband warrants its own analysis. Hill says the photos in question were taken without her consent, but the discourse surrounding them implies that any nude photos, even those taken consensually, should constitute a black mark on someone’s record.

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It’s a discourse we see over and over; whether it’s a politician, or a female celebrity – the release of nude photos inevitably becomes a snake pit of slutshaming, sexual purity tests, and overtures about what constitutes “asking for it”In a closed meeting Monday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi turned Hill into a cautionary tale, saying “It goes to show you, we should say to young candidates, and to kids in kindergarten really, be careful when transmitting photos.”

As a woman, this issue can be a fraught one. One of the first times I sent a nude photo, I was in college and dating a much older, manipulative and predatory man who asked for them incessantly but told me his phone camera was broken so he couldn’t reciprocate. Now that I’m older, I feel free to admit that I am someone who has sexual agency – which includes, for me, enthusiastically sending and receiving nude photos. 

Nonetheless, I’m acutely attuned to the dangers involved in even admitting to that – as I type it I wonder which of my exes will read this and remember he has an arsenal to launch against me; I worry that an important person will read this and see me as unfit for a job or a promotion or respect.

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But whether or not I send nude photos should be as relevant to my career as whether I give blowjobs on my knees or on my back, which is to say, not at all. Sharing nude photos with someone isn’t immoral any more than allowing someone to see you nude in person; sexting isn’t any more deviant or risqué than actually having sex. 

These are all just things on a spectrum of intimacy, and as long as they occur consensually, they are not only no one’s business, but they should be considered no more salacious than grabbing drinks with friends, or watching television, or anything else people do for pleasure. 

Sure, I take precautions – the same way I use condoms and share my location with friends whenever I sleep with someone new. I have clear boundaries about what I will and won’t send. But when people talk about how sending nude pictures is a “mistake”, or how you always have to make sure you do it with someone you “trust”, they are implying that there is something inherently wrong or indecent with doing it in the first place. 

They’re also victim blaming; playing into the same ethos that treats sex and sexuality for women as a de facto risk for which we must have a perfectly exacting radar – weeding out bad situations before they happen, screening out predators before they show us who they really are.

Sending nudes to someone who turns out to be untrustworthy would be no more a mistake or fault on my part than getting into bed with someone who turns out to be predatory or violent – and implying in any way that it is only perpetuates the culture that allows predators to exploit nude photos by sharing them non-consensually.

And as with sex, when people exploit and rob someone of their consent by disseminating their nude photos, it’s a crime. What Hill’s ex is doing to her is sexual violence. When rabid, uptight congressmen froth at the mouth over the possession of even more photographs of her, they are revealing themselves to be sexual predators and they should be treated in accordance. 

Just as sexual assault is a crime, so is sharing someone’s nude photos without their consent.

And to be clear, when someone is publicly shamed for taking nude photos – after they are leaked or shared against their will – the pearl clutching is never over the sight of someone’s naked body but because such photos are a physical manifestation of female pleasure, the stigmatisation of which is a key tenant of rape culture and purity culture.

Sharing nude photos is fun – it can be an exciting and arousing way to explore what you and your partner or partners are into; it’s an outlet to feel sexy and validated and to revel in the power of turning someone on. Practically everyone I know is doing it – and if you’re not, you’re almost certainly doing something else that someone’s archaic notions of sex and sexuality would similarly disallow. 

Before you call it a mistake or suggest people be “careful” about doing it, consider how doing so implies there is something inherently wrong or deviant about sharing nude photos; an implication that places the shame and fault with the victim and absolves the predator.

Women like sex. We masturbate. And yes, we send nude photos of ourselves to people; it’s unacceptable that we live in a world where even the fucking admission of being sexual – of engaging in pleasure, of being human – can be used against us.raoe

Caroline Reilly is a Boston-based reproductive justice advocate, writer, and law student. You can find her work on the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, Rewire.News, where she writes about medical misogyny, sexual violence, abortion access and more. Find her on Twitter @ms_creilly.