It is not often that a state legislative campaign in an off-season election seizes the national spotlight. But that is what happened in September, when the Washington Post revealed that a promising Virginia Democrat, Susanna Gibson, had previously been captured in a recorded video performing sex acts online with her husband.
Gibson, a 40-year-old nurse practitioner, was running in one of the most competitive elections in the state — a race for a Richmond-area seat in the House of Delegates that had the potential to determine whether Democrats or Republicans would control the chamber. There was unusual national interest in Virginia’s elections because the Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, had staked his credibility as a national political figure in part on his ability to take full control of state government.
The video — a recording of an explicit livestream that the Post said had been uploaded elsewhere on the internet — had been shared by a Republican political operative, according to the paper. The Post’s report upended Gibson’s life, to say nothing of her candidacy.
“I’m fundamentally changed as a human having gone through something like that,” she said in an interview.
The episode also detonated a debate in Virginia and beyond about digital and sexual privacy in 21st-century politics. In a possible reflection of shifting social norms, Gibson nearly won the race anyway — she lost by less than 1,000 votes and has not ruled out a return to electoral politics in the future. (Despite losing Gibson’s race, Democrats still took full control of the Virginia State Legislature.)
To explore the difficult social and legal questions that churned through Virginia politics, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Gibson about her experience in the campaign — and the implications of that race for a larger cohort of younger candidates who grew up in a world of increasingly blurry lines around their public, private and online lives.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The last three months of a campaign are just a blur. Can you talk about what that experience was like for you, having to do the home sprint of a campaign with this other issue on top of it?
My entire life was rocked on Sept. 11, when the article ran. It ran, implying that I performed sex acts online with my husband for money. It was really written based on this Dropbox file that self-described Republican operatives shopped around. They had found these videos on the dark web and shopped them around to various news outlets. I didn’t have any idea that there were ever videos of me that had been made and uploaded to multiple sites.
I think it was Sept. 7, I was in clinic seeing patients and a reporter reached out to my campaign, trying to get my phone number. That’s how I found out. When you find out that there are sexually explicit videos of you online, especially by being contacted by national reporters — it is a feeling that I would not wish on my worst enemy.
It took me about two weeks to actually be able to get up and function. We had reporters, Daily Mail reporters especially, camped out in front of my house for two weeks. I had to leave — left the state, actually, for a few days, to get them to go away and leave my children and my family alone. After those two weeks, I was chomping at the bit to go out and start door-knocking again and meeting voters and campaigning.
On Sept. 7, when there was that first contact with the reporter — did you immediately know, “Oh, this is what they’re talking about, how could they possibly know about this?” Or was it just sort of, “What on earth is this?” Can you narrate that moment?
So, they called and spoke with my media consultant. I was seeing patients in clinic and I got three phone calls in a row within a minute of each other. I always keep my phone with me in clinic just because my kids have severe food allergies. The first two, it was just coincidental and had nothing to do with this, but they were in the political world. The third call was my media consultant. So, I picked up.
I was like, “Well, what is going on? Is everything okay, because I’m seeing a patient?” He said, “No, everything is not okay.” And he told me that this particular reporter was looking for my phone number but wouldn’t tell him what it was about. She had told him, ‘I don’t want to tell you, you don’t know what it’s about. It’s personal. She’s a mother. I don’t want to have to discuss this with you. I don’t want to go after her.” I really appreciated that respectfulness of her, by the way, but they went back and forth. Finally, I had to text and say: “Please tell him anything and everything, my full permission — I’m in clinic.”
But no, I had no idea. This was not what came to mind at all. I sat there racking my brain and then thought that it could be from this. But I still wasn’t sure until the Washington Post reporter came two days later to a canvas launch — where I had my daughter, by the way. My manager intercepted her. He said, “Well, I don’t even know what you have. You don’t even know what that is.” And she started texting with them.
Can I ask you how your family and your friends responded to the Post story?
We spent a few days fighting with them, two days or so, a day and a half —
Sorry, “fighting with them” — meaning, the Post?
Fighting with the Post. I hired an amazing attorney who worked around the clock and wrote them several letters, essentially saying: To be clear, Ms. Gibson never acknowledged or consented to videos being recorded, this is illegal pornography because it is illegal to record someone in a state of undress without consent.
It was a few days of feeling hopeful, then swung from hopeful to devastated. How can this be happening? How can a national news outlet decide to run a story about this? I think if I wasn’t a candidate, the Post probably would have been appalled at the invasion of my privacy. But because I was a candidate, they decided that it was a political story, rather than an invasion of my privacy and potentially a crime.
You said, “invasion of your privacy.” How much do you feel like people in general should be free to live really separate lives online?
So, this is interesting. I think this is going to continue to happen as millennials age into running for office. There was a 2014 study conducted by McAfee that said or showed that 90 percent of millennial women have taken nude photos at some point. This is something that is very common, especially in the younger generations.
I think a big underlying factor that really needs to be addressed, and our society needs to start being educated on, is there is this devaluation and misunderstanding of consent, especially when we’re talking about digital privacy. Content that is initially made in a consensual context, which is then distributed in a non-consensual context digitally, is a crime. Just because someone consented to share something in one particular context doesn’t mean that it is or should be fair game for the whole world to see.
Choosing to share content, online or in whatever medium, with select people with the understanding that it will disappear and can only be seen by those present at the time — when we’re talking live streaming, webcamming and Skype — that is a far cry from consenting for that content to be recorded and then broadly disseminated. And there is case law precedent confirming this.
You referred before to the Post treating this as a story because you’re a candidate — that their view, as you put it, was that it was not an invasion of privacy, it was a political story because you’re a candidate. Separate and apart from what the legal questions involved are, how much do you feel like there ought to be a bigger barrier between what people do digitally and the way they are assessed as people in their non-digital lives?
How strongly I would have felt about this before this actually happened to me — who knows? I think I would probably feel the same way, but just not quite as strongly.
I think what people do in their private lives, digitally — if it is legal, it is consensual and has no bearing on their ability to do their jobs — I think there should be a barrier. I think that it is unethical to make people’s private lives — especially their sexual private lives — public and part of how we think about them and their ability to do their jobs and make positive contributions to their communities.
The part that strikes me as tricky is that there certainly are things that people do online that we do want to be able to assess in a political context or make part of the public record on that person, right?
If it had to do with policy.
Or if you had been writing racist rants on the internet or something, I don’t think anybody would say, “Whoa, that’s a protected private space” — right? I think defining that line is the hard part.
I think that anything that has to do with people’s families — point blank, period — should not be. And I think that anything that has to do with nudity or sexuality, there needs to be a barrier there.
We know that when images, particularly that have to do with sexuality and nudity, because of our society’s particular interest in those things — our prurient interest — the moment that an image like that or a video like that gets put on the internet, it’s like lighting a fire in a dry forest. It spreads rapidly and extensively until it causes irreversible damage. I think anything, especially that has to do with sexuality — there needs to be a significant barrier there, because of the damage that it can do. It’s a breach of trust and a breach of dignity — the right to dignity and privacy and sexual autonomy.
There are scholars that argue that non-consensual pornography really should be relabeled and called image-based sexual abuse, because of the damage that it causes. We know that victims of sexual abuse experience significant mental health issues, they experience damage to their reputation, social isolation, breakdown of relationships and friendships and loss of current or future employment.
Have you suffered irreversible damage?
I would say I’ve fundamentally changed as a human, as a professional. Very few people understand what it is like to be afraid to leave your home because you have had people parked in front of your house or driving through your cul-de-sac or coming up to your door and ringing the doorbell. That damage is something that, depending on how people process trauma, can really do a number on them. We see increased risk of suicide, certainly of suicidal ideation, in victims of non-consensual pornography or image-based sexual abuse.
So, yeah, I would say I’m fundamentally changed as a human having gone through something like that.
I’m curious whether there was ever a point, in either responding to the initial story or in the balance of the campaign, where you felt tempted to take a more defiant approach to responding to this and say, “You know what, you’re damn right I did it. It was a harmless activity and you’re a bunch of creeps for talking about it.”[Laughs] Well, I did not do everything that they said I did. But you know, and to people’s point, they were correct in saying: Hey, don’t give it air.
It’s something that kind of shook a lot of people in the political sphere, in our social sphere in the community. But then, after that kind of shock wore off — of such a salacious story — voters started not caring. They care much more about what I can do for them and the issues that affect them every day, which is why you even saw the Republican Party of Virginia, loudly and proudly, take credit for and send out mailers that contained images and verbiage from these videos. I mean, that’s appalling.
I want everyone to stop for a second and take a step back from this particular story and take more of a long-lens view of what actually happened in the way this Post article was written. A political operative found sexually explicit videos of a young woman running for office that she never knew existed — and we made that pretty clear in our statement — and shopped them around to various news outlets, trying to get them published to humiliate, intimidate, coerce, harass this woman, and with the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election that very well could have been the majority maker or breaker for the House.
There are legal experts who argue that this is a violation of federal and state laws: possession of illegal pornography, dissemination of illegal pornography across state lines, violating revenge porn laws. But the way our nation more ultimately interprets that and reads that story, it’s the young woman that’s nationally blamed, shamed, harassed, bullied, threatened, all of the above. There’s very little discussion — I saw no discussion in this in particular — of blaming and shaming the political operative.
When the media, the press, labels and reports on something as a scandal — using that word “scandal” — it dismisses the seriousness of the situation and essentially shifts and puts that blame on the victim.
Did you observe any variation, based on generation or based on gender, in how voters responded to the story?
Yes. It’s interesting. Younger voters don’t care. Very, very few of them, I would say. My age and younger, maybe even mid-40s up to 50 or so, didn’t care. I’m a millennial, I’m the oldest possible millennial — 90 percent of millennials have taken nude photos. So, I think we all understand.
When I was in college, probably when you were in college, there was all this, “Oh no, there will be photos of people drinking on the internet when they run for Congress later on.” That’s totally quaint now, right? Or, I mean, this is a very different situation but the original Anthony Weiner scandal — not the one that landed him in jail, but the initial DMing, you know, a lewd photo —
I just finished Huma Abedin’s memoir, have you read it?
No, I haven’t.
Oh my God, I actually have to write to her because she describes something that was really poignant for me, about how she was pregnant — she was early in her pregnancy, hadn’t told her friends and family — and The New York Times got wind of this story that she was pregnant. She was just absolutely horrified that something so private and personal was going to be revealed to her family and friends through reading about it in The New York Times. That loss of control, how damaging and traumatizing that was for her.
I don’t know that a congressman caught in Weiner’s position would have to resign, right? Because it’s 12 years later. There’s no novelty factor to it, anymore.
That’s what I tell people about what happened to me. This was bound to happen to some young woman. This was inevitable. And my hope is that I can prevent it from happening to other women down the road, but also that, hopefully, it has absorbed some of that shock value and will make it easier if it does happen.
How supported did you feel by the Democratic Party in the final months of your campaign?
Some people were wonderful. Sen. Louise Lucas, immediately, as soon as she heard what happened, jumped and said: “This is not OK, let’s rally around her and help her.” She’s been wonderful, in particular. There are several others that have been.
We had several partners — Planned Parenthood, Repro Rising, ACLU, Equality Virginia — they were really wonderful to me and rallied behind me, particularly the repro groups. And I felt very much supported by them. They had volunteers flying in from Minnesota, specifically because they wanted to knock for me. We had support.
There were certainly people that didn’t know how to process this and kind of shied away from being actively involved. And I’m disappointed. That’s not just in the party or in these particular people but just in general — disappointment that this happened. It never should have happened. It never should have been on the scale that it was.
What do you draw from the fact that the race was so close in the end?
That voters didn’t care. The Republican Party in Virginia never would have sent those mailers if they didn’t know I was going to win or certainly could win.
I stopped working [at the clinic] the last two months of the campaign after the story came out. I was always going to take some time off; I took more time off than originally intended and I knocked, on average, 100 doors a day for two months. You have conversations with voters and you can kind of tell who knew and who didn’t know, and who knew and didn’t care. Very few people actually seemed to care — very few. I can count them on less than two hands.
They cared about reproductive rights. They cared about gun violence and having their kids get the best quality education and being able to come home from school safely. Those are the things they care about. They care about being able to afford their home. They care about having transportation. After the initial shock wore off, I think it had little to do with the race.
Are you still considering legal action?
Yes. I want the person who found and then disseminated illegal pornographic images of me — again, violating federal and state laws — they need to be held accountable. I’m working with a few members in the General Assembly in Virginia right now to amend Virginia’s current revenge porn law, particularly to remove intent or motives, because intent is so hard to prove in a court of law, and also to increase the penalty from a misdemeanor. If we don’t do that, what is the deterrence for people?
I think we also need, on a federal level, to push for legislation that covers the non-consensual distribution and sexual privacy of intimate material in every single way.
How optimistic are you that you will be able to hold the person accountable?
I’ve told people this forever, but it’s true: When I decide to do something, I will work and work and work — I will outwork everyone. I will make sure it happens.
It’s going to be a long process. Subpoenas take a long time. But there is a special victims detective who also has FBI privileges looking into it now. She has been for about a month now. I’m optimistic.