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A Fear Of Revenge Porn Shouldn't Stop You From Running For Office

'Your sexuality is not shameful. Your body is not embarrassing. You are not the one who should be scared this week'

By Amanda Litman

To young people thinking about running for office one day:

Do not let what happened to former Representative Katie Hill (D-CA) scare you out of your ambitions.

Earlier this week, Hill resigned from office after a complicated mess involving a consensual relationship she had with a member of her campaign staff, an ethics complaint against her, and an ex-husband who was allegedly both abusive and involved in the posting of private photos of the congresswoman without her consent — an act known as revenge porn, which is illegal in 46 states and Washington, D.C.

She was one of the 117 women who made history last year, flipping a seat in southern California from red to blue — she did so as a then-29-year-old bisexual woman and former director of a homelessness non-profit, running unabashedly as herself. During her time in Washington, D.C., she was a leader amongst her peers in Congress. She was known to be a mentee of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and she had a seat on the Judiciary Committee, which is overseeing the process of President Donald Trump’s impeachment. For a first-time member of Congress, Hill was powerful.

There is never any excuse for a relationship with a subordinate, and Hill herself conceded that point: “I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment,” she said in a letter to her constituents. “For that I apologize.”

But it is also no wonder that people — her ex-husband, those that work at right-wing media companies, GOP political operatives, possibly a former Trump crony who’s spent time in prison for lying to federal authorities, and perhaps even some Democrats — have allegedly played parts in bringing her down. They tried to make her an example of what happens to women who take charge as their full selves. They were scared of her power, and they’re scared of yours.

As the co-founder and executive director of Run for Something, an organization that recruits and supports young people like you running for office, I want to be explicitly clear: Do not let this scare you out of running.

You can run for office if you’ve been in sexual relationships or if you’ve taken private photos or sexted — and you wouldn’t be alone, given that 88 percent of respondents to one survey say they have. You can run if you’re one of the 10 million Americans who have been targeted by revenge porn. You can run for office if you’ve gone bankrupt; or if you have student debt; or if you’ve smoked pot; or been arrested; or been addicted to opioids; or are LGBTQ+; or are fat; or if you are disabled; or are of any race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. You can run for office if you are some or all of these things, and more. You can run for office if you’ve never cared about politics before, or if you’ve run for office and lost three times over. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not your turn or not your time.

I know Hill’s experience can make this feel like a Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Put Your Name on the Ballot situation, but realistically: If it’s not your photos on the internet, it’ll be something else. They will find a way to tear you apart, because they are terrified of you. Simply putting your name on the ballot is a sign that you are not settling for the status quo. Your presence is an affront to the way things “should” be. You will scare the living daylights out of the old boys’ club that’s been in charge for literal centuries — and of everyone else who has propped them up, too.

Your fear is the patriarchy’s oxygen. Do not give it a chance to breathe.

When you run — and you should — you will absolutely be held to a double standard, because until women in power are the norm, we will be second-guessed. It will feel hypocritical and unfair. It is, especially if you’re a woman of color and/or LGBTQ+. The reality is that while Hill felt forced to resign, a man who brags about sexually assaulting women (and has been credibly accused of raping others) is in the White House. Two men who were accused of sexual misconduct have jobs for life on the Supreme Court. Hill’s very own Republican colleague from California, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, was indicted last year for using taxpayer money to have affairs with three lobbyists, a congressional aide, and one of his staffers. He’s expected to face a criminal trial next year, and yet, remains in his seat in Congress. The list of men from both parties who have been accused of sexual harassment or assault is long and infuriating; more maddening still is the list of those who have kept their jobs. (After all, straight, cisgender men’s sexual prowess and aggression is rarely punished; instead, it’s celebrated.)

Your sexuality is not shameful. Your body is not embarrassing. You are not the one who should be scared this week. The people who weaponized photos of Hill against her should be scared. The people who use a woman’s sexuality to manipulate and abuse her, holding her hostage to their whims — they should be scared.

Because over the last two years, women have risen up and run for office in record numbers, and there is no sign of slowing down. Hill has already said she’ll do her part to ensure that by fighting hard for laws making cyber exploitation and revenge porn federally illegal. Every single participant in the process of sharing her photos will hopefully face consequences. And women are speaking up against the double standard, and calling the bluff that what you choose to do as a consenting adult could be used against you on the campaign trail.

“As more women under 40 run for office, we are going to have to figure out how to stand together and say it’s the leaking of them, not the taking of them, that is shameful,” Ashley Fairbanks, the creative director of Julian Castro’s presidential campaign, said in a now-viral tweet. She later added on Medium that a fear of revenge porn has previously kept her from running for office, but that may soon change: “If I run for office one day, I can now stand up and say, I am actually not ashamed of this photo. I’m ashamed to live in a culture where women who get naked or have sex are the ones shamed for their actions  —  not the men who rape us.”

Some young people have taken Ashley’s path and proudly declared they’ll release their own photos, or share that they exist, claiming ownership over their images. That’s certainly an option available to you, if you want to take it (and generally, the more upfront you can be about your past, the better). But you don’t have to do that if you don’t want to. The key is that it’s your choice. As time goes on, the stigma around private photos will fade — and hopefully, the stigma around sharing someone else's photos without their consent becomes even more ferocious, and the legal and societal consequences will be taken seriously.

Women and other first-time candidates have run for Congress, like Hill, but tens of thousands more are running for school boards, city councils, and state legislatures. You can do that, too. Start local, where the community impact is just as high but the political stakes are often much lower. Find the problem you care about solving and the office that will let you solve it. Make sure your family and friends are on board. If you’re in a relationship, ensure your partner is ready to be your advocate and cheerleader. This will be hard, because no matter what, running for office is hard: Be ready to spend literally thousands of hours knocking on doors to meet voters one-on-one — smear campaigns and mudslinging are much harder to make stick if a voter has a personal relationship with a candidate.

With every election cycle, more young people — especially young women — are running and winning. And as that groundswell continues, private photos will be less and less likely to destroy your campaign or your career, and no matter what, you won’t be alone. You’ll be part of a movement of people who are taking power back.

I know you might still be afraid. That’s okay. Do it afraid. You won’t be the only, or the last. We’ll have your back.

Hillary Clinton’s email director. (The other emails.) Responsible for raising more than $330 million online. Charlie Crist’s digital director when he ran for governor in 2014. One of the first employees at Organizing for Action as deputy email director. Email writer for Barack Obama’s re-elect. Northwestern University graduate. Bookworm. Feminist. Nationals fan. Dog owner. Amanda Litman is the co-founder and executive director of Run For Something.