How much of a role did revenge porn play in Rep. Katie Hill’s resignation from Congress? Maybe more than you think

Analysis banner

Freshman Dem. Rep. Katie Hill announced her resignation from Congress over the weekend, following intense scrutiny amid accusations she had an affair with a member of her staff.

Just days before, the right-wing news site RedState published a story on October 18 alleging Hill was involved in a consensual relationship with a female campaign staffer and her husband Kenny Heslep, who she is divorcing, as well as a yearlong relationship with her legislative director, Graham Kelly. The site published screenshots of what appeared to be text messages between Heslep and the staffer, as well as a nude photo of Hill without her consent.

Less than a week later, the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, also published the nude photos of Hill.

Hill has denied any relationship with Kelly, which would violate House ethics rules. The House Ethics Committee said last week it had opened an investigation into those allegations.

But there's another story happening with Hill: Following Hill's resignation from Congress, questions are swirling over the role that revenge porn — reportedly released by her soon-to-be ex-husband — may have played in her transition from political darling to disgraced politician. Some critics say she was a victim who faced double standards as a woman and openly bisexual politician.

Hill says her husband is responsible for circulating her nudes

Hill has blamed her husband for circulating the nude photos. In her resignation letter, she said "this is what needs to happen so that the good people who supported me will no longer be subjected to the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives who seem to happily provide a platform to a monster who is driving a smear campaign built around cyber exploitation."

"Having private photos of personal moments weaponized against me has been an appalling invasion of my privacy. It's also illegal, and we are currently pursuing all of our available legal options," she added. "However, I know that as long as I am in Congress, we'll live fearful of what might come next and how much it will hurt."a

Hill, a first-term Democrat, was viewed as a rising star in the party. Formerly the executive director of a homeless service organization in California, she was named by Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a vice chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and, according to the New York Times, considered a Pelosi favorite.

Following her Sunday night resignation, the House Speaker said in a statement that "[Hill] has acknowledged errors in judgment that made her continued service as a member untenable."

The House rule that prohibits sexual relationships between lawmakers and their staff was first passed in February 2018, in the height of the #MeToo movement and following a slew of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations in government. That rule prompted the House Ethics Committee's investigation into Hill.

But, some are questioning whether efforts to combat sexual misconduct are actually victimizing Hill, one of the first openly bisexual members of Congress, by focusing on her alleged affairs, rather than the revenge porn, or nonconsensual pornography, that was put out to tarnish her image.

"Hill's affair with a campaign staffer doesn't violate House ethics rules, but it's still clearly questionable — a more-powerful boss sleeping with a young subordinate opens up questions of sexual harassment and significant impropriety," wrote Jill Filipovic, an attorney, journalist and author of the book "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness," in a Medium essay. "But those questions pale in comparison to what has been done to Hill… While we don't see sexually active men as morally questionable, we still live in a world where sexually active women are branded as sluts and shamed them for their sexuality — which is exactly what's happening to Hill."

There are currently revenge porn laws in 46 states (including California, where Hill lives) as well as the District of Columbia, according to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. Bipartisan legislation was also introduced earlier this year that would federally criminalize sharing sexually explicit images without consent.

Following publication of the photos, Hill threatened to sue the Daily Mail and, in a cease-and-desist letter obtained by POLITICO, demanded they remove the images.

"One of the many terrible effects of nonconsensual pornography is how it can be used to drive women out of politics," Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, as well as President and Legislative & Tech Policy Director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, wrote on Twitter, adding: "As we at [Cyber Civil Rights Initiative] have been emphasizing for years, 'revenge porn' very often serves as a tool of abusive partners and a means to silence women."

Conservative focus on Hill's gender and sexuality

In this June 17, 2010 file photo, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, questions BP CEO Tony Hayward, on Capitol Hill in Washington, during the House Energy and Environment subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on the role of BP in the Deepwater Horizon Explosion and Oil Spill.

AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

Hill isn't the first politician to be rebuked for nude photos; Joe Barton, a former congressman from Texas who spent more than three decades in office, opted not to seek re-election after a nude selfie was released online. It was later revealed that Barton, who was married but separated, was having consensual relationships with multiple women.

But conservative outlets have particularly honed in on Hill's gender and sexuality. As noted by Vox, "the fact that Hill is bisexual and a woman may have impacted the way the allegations against her have been covered and received by the public." For instance, various outlets are emphasizing the "throuple" angle, while terms such as "photos" and "uncensored" were some of the top Google search terms last week in connection to Hill, suggesting people were actively seeking out the nude photos. Many Republican critics have also posted the nude photos on Twitter, the New York Times reported.

"Quite apart from the harsh double standards faced by female politicians — they can't be too shrill, they have to be likable, on and on — Hill is also being punished, or punishing herself, for one colossally fantastically unbelievably stupid move: Posing for nude photographs, alone and with a (presumably) female lover, while running for Congress," noted Robin Abcarian, an opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times.

Hill's resignation has sparked fierce debate over issues of revenge porn, sexism and biphobia, and — in light of her allegations of abuse against her husband — domestic violence on the internet. Off of Abcarian's point, it also raises a compelling question: would Hill have resigned if she were a man?

To take a somewhat parallel case, Rep. Duncan Hunter, who was indicted for misappropriating campaign money to live a lavish lifestyle and fund affairs with multiple women, including one with a member of his own staff and another with a woman on the staff of another member, has yet to resign.

And, let's not forget how President Donald Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women since the 1970s.

Preston Mitchum, a senior legal and international policy analyst for Advocates for Youth, wrote on Twitter that "what's happening to Katie Hill is wrong on all levels."

"And yes, we can discuss inappropriate relationships re: Katie Hill. We should discuss power dynamics. We should even discuss white womanhood. But we should also discuss bisexuality as a sword and the revenge porn of her abusive soon-to-be-ex and the website that published it," he added.

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie agreed, writing that the "big story of Hill's resignation is the fact that she's a victim of revenge porn from her ex-husband, published and publicized by a conservative media outlet."

Supporters of Hill argue that while it's important to acknowledge the alleged affair and Ethics Committee investigation, it's also impossible to ignore the unique circumstances surrounding her departure —which comes less than two weeks after the photos first surfaced. Campus anti-rape group Know Your IX emphasized how "while Hill is resigning amid allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a staffer, it also falls after a campaign of harassment and revenge porn from an abusive ex-husband. We need to talk about both pieces."

In the wake of her resignation, Hill has vowed to fight revenge porn.

"Now, my fight is going to be to defeat this type of exploitation that so many women are victims of and which will keep countless women and girls from running for office or entering public office," she wrote in her resignation letter. "Thank you for allowing me to turn my focus to this particular battle right now."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *