In 2013, Gawker published a sex tape featuring the wrestler Hulk Hogan and a female partner, the then-wife of his best friend Bubba the Love Sponge. The outrage following this story emerged at a slow trickle: while some media commenters suggested the story may have been in poor taste, most viewed it as just another example of the tabloid’s notoriously unruly ethos; i.e., just Gawker being Gawker. Then, in 2016, Hogan filed a $100 million lawsuit against Gawker, alleging invasion of privacy. He won, with the jury ruling a $140 million award for Hogan. (Gawker and Hogan later settled for $31 million, prompting Gawker and Denton to file for bankrupcty.)
Following the verdict, as media pundits weighed in on the implications of the suit for freedom of the press and private equity firms picked over Gawker Media’s bones, it was reported that Hogan’s lawsuit had been financially backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel undoubtedly had a bone to pick with Denton, who had published a story in 2007 alleging Thiel was gay. In an op-ed for the New York Times, however, Thiel claimed that he backed the lawsuit not as part of a personal vendetta against Gawker and Denton, but in the interest of protecting nonconsensual porn victims. “Protecting individual dignity online is a long-term project,” Thiel wrote, citing the Intimate Privacy Protection Act (IPPA), a proposed amendment making revenge porn illegal that he referred to as “the Gawker bill.”
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As the author of IPPA later pointed out, Thiel’s implication that the bill had been inspired by the Gawker lawsuit was inaccurate. More to the point, his argument that he supported Hogan’s suit against Gawker for high-minded ideological reasons was completely disingenuous and abominable on its face. But he was correct about one thing: protecting the individual dignity of revenge porn victims online is, indeed, a long-term project, one that requires the participation of not just individuals and the federal and state governments, but also the media. Following the demise of Gawker, there was a brief yet thoughtful conversation in certain media circles about whether Gawker’s decision to publish the tape had indeed represented a failure of this project. Which is why, three years later, it is so surprising to see silence surrounding the subject of the media’s treatment of Katie Hill.
A rising star in Congress and a darling of the left, Hill, 32, was forced to resign as a U.S. Representative last week after the right-wing website RedState obtained and published “intimate photographs” of Hill with a female campaign staffer. The origins of the photos are unconfirmed, but Hill has stated they were provided to RedState by her estranged husband Kenny Heslep, who has publicly ranted about their marriage on social media. (Heslep’s family has claimed he was hacked; Heslep has not issued a public statement since the allegations surfaced.) According to RedState, Heslep, Hill, and the staffer were involved in a consensual polyamorous relationship before Hill broke up with both of them earlier this year; the story also accused Hill of having an affair with her legislative director, which she denied.
In itself, the allegation that a politician had an affair with a staffer is irrefutably newsworthy; it also represents a pretty significant ethical breach, as Hill herself later admitted in her resignation speech. But that issue is separate from whether RedState’s story was ideologically motivated (the journalist who wrote it had a long history of promoting and endorsing Hill’s political opponents), or whether it was appropriate to publish intimate photos of Hill. The latter question is particularly salient, as Hill indicated in her statement that the photos were not released consensually and were sent to the publication by “an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me.”
Such a narrative would, indeed, follow the revenge porn script to a T: an estranged male partner (the vast majority of nonconsensual porn victims are women) retaliates against an ex by releasing nude or sexually explicit photos intended to embarrass her. And Hill initially vowed not to kowtow to such attempts to humiliate or degrade her. “This coordinated effort to try to destroy me and people close to me is despicable and will not succeed,” she said.
Unfortunately, the effort to destroy Hill was just beginning. On October 24th, the Daily Mail published more intimate photos of Hill and the female staffer, whom they identified by name; in one of the photos, Hill was seen smoking a bong while naked, an image that served as ideal grist for the Republican smear campaign mill. At that point, the damage against Hill’s reputation had been done: after the House Ethics Committee had announced it was opening an investigation into Hill’s conduct, Hill resigned from her seat on October 27th, in an angry, tear-filled speech that quickly went viral. “The forces of revenge by a bitter jealous man, cyber exploitation and sexual shaming that target our gender and a large segment of society that fears and hates powerful women have combined to push a young woman out of power and say that she doesn’t belong here,” she said in her speech.
To an extent, it’s not at all surprising that RedState, and to a more egregious extent the Daily Mail, would stoop to publishing nonconsensual nude photos of Hill. (Hill has hired the firm of revenge-porn lawyer Carrie Goldberg to represent her; while it’s possible she will sue both publications, as the Atlantic writes they will likely both cite a loophole in revenge porn law in Hill’s home state of California, which carves out an exemption for images released in the public interest.) As a right-wing website with a history of promoting conspiracy theories about, among other things, the Parkland shooting survivors and the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, RedState has a record of bypassing traditional journalistic protocols in favor of garnering outrage clicks from the right. The narrative of a young, female, attractive progressive embedded in a polyamorous relationship with a female staffer may as well have been engineered in a lab for their audience. The Daily Mail is also so well-known for its caps lock-laden headlines about footballer wives’ nip slips and factually questionable stories aggregated from Russian clickbait farms that taking the outlet to task for violating journalistic protocol seems futile. But just because the bar is low for both publications doesn’t mean the bar shouldn’t exist, and the fact that the publication of both stories didn’t generate massive bipartisan outrage is yet another symptom of our diseased political discourse.
What is so surprising about the Hill story is the eagerness with which mainstream, and even left-leaning, news outlets, took the bait. While most outlets made a cursory effort to acknowledge the grossness of RedState and the Daily Mail publishing Hill’s nudes, much of the postmortem coverage was focused on how Hill’s downfall reflected the degradation of the political discourse, or the double standard facing women in politics. Some even went so far as to hint at blaming Hill for taking the photos in the first place (and not for the ostensible ethical issue at hand, which was her relationship with a staffer). In an op-ed for the New York Times, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explicitly attributed Hill’s downfall to her taking the nude photos, Maureen Dowd reiterated that argument, bizarrely citing both a TikTok meme and her reading of Shakespeare in the process. “You have to protect yourself — and your data. Don’t let our shiny new tools blind you to the fact that some horrible truths about humanity never change. And don’t leave yourself vulnerable by giving people the ammunition — or the nudes — to strip you of your dreams,” she wrote.
In making this argument, Dowd and Pelosi regurgitated a victim-blaming narrative that has become common: that taking nude photos of yourself is essentially an open invitation for people to take advantage of you. But considering that nearly 88% of adults have admitted to sexting a partner in the past year (and considering the basic truth that the sex lives of consenting adults are nobody’s business but their own), this argument demonstrates both a shocking lack of empathy and a lack of understanding of digital culture at large.
More than six years have passed since the publication of the Hogan story, and more than three years since the demise of Gawker. Since then, nonconsensual porn and its traumatic effects on victims has become a mainstream talking point, both among lawmakers and among the culture at large; to that end, 46 states including Washington, D.C. have passed legislation preventing people from posting nonconsensual sexually explicit images and videos. Given how much awareness there is of the phenomenon in general, there should be some accompanying acknowledgment of how abusers use revenge porn as a tactic to control and humiliate women, as well as a tacit understanding that institutions, and especially news outlets, should not participate in that process. There should be some understanding that even playing the dirty game of politics is a separate project from that of protecting individuals’ dignity. But if Katie Hill’s resignation is any indication, we have learned exactly nothing.
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