Krystal Ball was a little-known Virginia Democrat with an intriguing name, running a long-shot campaign for Congress in a district held by Republicans for more than three decades.

But that was last week.

Ball, 28, has now landed on the national stage for reasons even she says she wished had remained private.

Six-year-old Christmas party photos showing Ball dressed as a sexy Mrs. Claus and clowning around with her now former husband recently surfaced on the Internet. In the photos, taken at a private home, he’s on a sparkly leash and wearing fuzzy antlers, his nose adorned with a Rudolph-red plastic penis.

Embarrassing? A most emphatic “yes,” says Ball, who Tuesday told NPR that her inclination after the photos were posted – she believes they were provided to a conservative blogger by someone she knew at the party – was to “hide in a corner.”

But hide she did not.

Now, the remarried mother of one running in Virginia’s 1st Congressional District finds herself, quite intentionally, at the center of an ongoing national debate about sexism, double standards and the inevitable perils of the digital age.

Ball, named by her physicist father who is an expert on crystals, says she sees herself as something of a pioneer – among the first political candidates to acknowledge photographic evidence of some less decorous moments of a not-so-distant youthful past. And she’s among the first to fight the potentially damaging effects of pictures that show, as she says, “fully clothed adults of legal age … acting silly and doing stupid things in front of a camera.”

“I may be one of the first who has had photos like this brought out in this way,” says Ball, a certified public accountant who graduated from the University of Virginia with an economics degree. “But given that more and more people from my generation will be stepping up and running for office and we’ve lived much of our lives online … I realized it was important for me to stand up to these tactics, to call them out.”

NPR’s Liz Halloran Talks To Krystal Ball, Democratic Candidate For Congress In Virginia

Her higher profile is unlikely to erase the comfortable lead enjoyed by her opponent, Republican incumbent Rep. Rob Wittman. His campaign manager, Casey Werderman, says that the congressman’s campaign has “condemned the [release of] the pictures from the beginning, and from the outset of our campaign we have been dedicated to focusing on the issues.”

The Sexuality Manifesto

In recent days, Ball has relied on advice from Siobhan “Sam” Bennett of the Women’s Campaign Forum, which in August, along with the groups Political Parity and the Women’s Media Center, launched the “Name It, Change It” campaign. The effort is designed to target instances of sexism against female candidates – whether in the media, or coming from political opponents.

One of the campaign’s mantras: Silence about sexism, perceived or otherwise, is no longer an option.

The groups have called out late-night comedian Jay Leno for asking a guest if he would like to have “sexual relations” with Christine O’Donnell, the Republican Senate candidate in Delaware. They have criticized the Ohio GOP for encouraging voters to put incumbent Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton “back in the kitchen.” And they have tweaked Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor in California, after a staff member suggested that opponent Meg Whitman could be characterized as a whore.

“There are many layers to this,” Bennett says of Ball’s situation. “But at its core is the sexism, misogyny issue.”

“If she were a male candidate, this wouldn’t matter,” says Bennett, who says she was the target of sexism – including references to her genitalia – during her unsuccessful 2008 run for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District. “She is a perfect example of what happens to women candidates all the time; she is also a perfect example of responding.”

Double Standard?

At the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, President and CEO Michelle Bernard says she finds the old photos of Ball appalling, but her arguments persuasive. “I’ve got to give it to her,” Bernard says. “Most people would have run off with their tail between their legs, but this is a woman with moxie.”

“It’s a very interesting political tactic to say, ‘Wake up America, times have changed,’ ” Bernard adds. “After all, we’ve got male members of Congress having affairs, having relations with men after making anti-gay comments – and they hold their heads high and go on.”

“She’s running the same way a man would, holding her head high,” she says.

Bennett says that research her organization and other women’s groups have done shows that mild sexism is as damaging to female candidates as blatant misogyny.

“But when a woman responds and calls it out, she not only regains the voters she may have lost but gets a positive bounce,” she says.

And Ball, with Bennett’s help, responded in a big way: with a manifesto of sorts posted on her campaign website and on The Huffington Post.

In the piece titled “The Next Glass Ceiling,” Ball, who says she’s been inspired by both Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Hillary Clinton, essentially asserted that the nation and its voters need to come to grips with the fact that women have sex lives – and that doesn’t make them whores.

Of those who released the photos, Ball says: “Not only did they want me to feel embarrassed, but they wanted me to feel like a whore.”

“This sort of tactic is obviously not new,” she says. “The first thing that my mother said to me when all of this happened was, ‘Isn’t this what they always do to women?’ “

Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown can pose in the nude as a young man for Cosmopolitan magazine, and that can seem funny – even give him a bump with voters – when he runs for office years later, and that’s not a campaign issue, nor should it be, Ball says.

“I just want to be treated with the same standard.”

Says Barnard: “We have a template for boys being boys, but we just don’t have one for girls being girls.”

Don’t Overplay

Ball’s assertions of sexism have fallen flat with some critics who say that if a male candidate had been pictured in similar photos there would be similar repercussions.

But Karen Finney, a former spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, says that it’s easier for men to dismiss charges of sexism. If it had been a man in the pictures, she says, “people would think he was a stud.”

“There are still stereotypes about women; this is a real issue,” Finney adds. “But this should also serve as a flag that in this digital age, pictures are forever.”

Still, Finney says, “Krystal Ball has a legitimate point to make, but she has to be careful about going overboard.”

In her home district, Ball had been running hard from the start, using strong rhetoric, and her critics have raised questions about her finances. That’s  scrutiny any candidate should expect.

Says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University: “I don’t think we want to send a signal that in this media age, in order to run for office and be viable, you cannot have done anything. But we need to be careful that we’re not getting to a point where anything in any candidate’s past is not fair game.”

She and Finney both caution Ball against comparing herself to Hillary Clinton, as the candidate did in her Huffington Post manifesto.

“It’s hard to say she’s faced what Hilllary has. Few have,” Lawless says.

Though Ball still faces long odds in the heavily Republican district, Lawless says that “there’s no question that this is all going to be helpful to her in the final days of the campaign, in terms of raising money from national donors.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, through June 30, Wittman had raised $927,927, and Ball had raised $752,073.

But win or not, Ball could be fashioning a national role in shaping the dialogue on women, politics and sexism.

The candidate, though, says she’s just looking toward Election Day.

“Just to be clear, I don’t feel like a victim,” she says. “I was very hurt when [the photographs] came out. I am trying to do my best to speak out on the issue.

“If anything, this whole thing has made me feel more powerful and stronger. … I just want to put that out there.”