Update: U.S. Rep. Katie Hill announced her resignation on Sunday, amid allegations of a relationship with a campaign worker and nude images being published without her consent. Hill said she will focus on fighting “revenge porn” upon leaving Congress. You can read more about Hill’s resignation here.
This story was originally published on October 25, 2019.
Democratic Rep. Katie Hill has found herself the subject of scandal after a series of allegations around a relationship with a congressional staffer were made public.
Now, Hill waits for the House Committee on Ethics to determine whether she’s violated the rules of sexual relationships within Congress. But the larger conversation here is one that remains neglected: Is Katie Hill the victim of revenge porn?
The story unraveled Wednesday, just before Hill admitted to an “inappropriate relationship” with a 20-something campaign worker before entering Congress. The ethics committee announced a formal investigation into the first-term Representative, who is also the first openly bisexual member of Congress in California.
LANCASTER, CA – OCTOBER 21: Democratic congressional candidate Katie Hill (CA-25), speaks to a constituent at a Halloween carnival on October 21, 2018 in Lancaster, California. Hill is competing for the seat against Republican incumbent Rep. Steve Knight. Democrats are targeting seven congressional seats in California, currently held by Republicans, where Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election. These districts have become the centerpiece of their strategy to flip the House and represent nearly one-third of the 23 seats needed for the Democrats to take control of the chamber in the November 6 mid term elections. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
These allegations against the 32-year-old congresswoman come amid her ongoing divorce to husband Kenny Heslep, to whom she’s referred to as abusive in the media. But right-wing “news” site RedState has tried to stir the pot even more. In a series of reports this week, RedState claimed Hill had been in a three-way sexual relationship with Heslep and her campaign worker, and had had an affair with her legislative director. The site also published personal text messages and blurred, but obviously nude photos. Shortly after, The Daily Mail published its own report, including another nude photo of Hill, as well as images of her with the campaign aide in question.
In response, Hill took a stand: She admitted to engaging in a consensual relationship with her former campaign aide, but vehemently denied any relationship with the legislative director in question.
“During the final tumultuous years of my abusive marriage, I became involved in a relationship with someone on my campaign,” Hill wrote in a letter to constituents obtained by the The New York Times. “I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment. For that I apologize. I wish nothing but the best for her and hope everyone respects her privacy in this difficult time.”
She added: “I am saddened that the deeply personal matter of my divorce has been brought into public view, even the false allegations of a relationship with my congressional staffer, which I have publicly denied, and I am fully and proactively cooperating with the Ethics Committee.”
Hill also sent a cease-and-desist letter to The Daily Mail, a copy of which her congressional office provided to Refinery29 when we reached out for comment. In it, her counsel demanded the removal of the photos, writing, “She faced an onslaught of vindictive, malicious, and invasive attacks in the past week. By spreading these purported claims, and dehumanizing and shaming images across the globe, you have perpetuated the cycle of abuse Representative Hill has endured.”
Hill reported the nude photos to U.S. Capitol Police. “Intimate photos of me and another individual were published by Republican operatives on the internet without my consent,” she said in the statement. “I have notified Capitol Hill police, who are investigating the situation and potential legal violations of those who posted and distributed the photos.”
Some have called the blurred photos published online “revenge porn,” but the legalities around distributing non-consensual pornography are complicated. Beyond that, they’re fairly new laws, with many, many holes, and a lot of factors are still determined on a case-by-case basis.
In California, a state that has a revenge-porn law, it comes down to the minutiae. Since its law was enacted in 2013, the dissemination of sexually explicit photos or videos without someone’s consent that subjects that person to emotional distress or public humiliation (or both) can fall under the category of non-consensual pornography. In order to be a punishable offense, the materials must include “intimate body parts” of an identifiable person with the understanding that distribution of those private images will cause public distress.
The photo of Hill that was originally published by RedState was redacted and therefore didn’t necessarily show any “body parts.” It’s unknown, though, if the version the website obtained (illegally or not) was also redacted. If it wasn’t, there could be a case for RedState defying the “public distress” factor by disseminating private photos.
Still, it’s unclear at this point if revenge porn charges would even fall under California’s jurisdiction, depending on where the photos were taken or obtained. And many argue that despite California spearheading legal ramifications for revenge porn, the laws are not nearly strict enough. If someone is found guilty of distributing non-consensual pornography, they are slapped with a misdemeanor charge and subject to a maximum six months in jail and $1,000 fine.
Carrie A. Goldberg, who specializes in revenge porn and internet privacy and whose firm is known for taking on “pervs, assholes, psychos, and trolls,” said she believes anyone who released or published these images of Hill should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. “Many state ‘revenge-porn laws’ have exceptions when the distribution is ‘newsworthy.’ There is nothing newsworthy here,” she told Refinery29 in an email. “Her political rivals seizing upon an opportunity to sexually humiliate an opponent is low, but not uncommon.”
Goldberg said she finds Hill’s predicament to be part of a larger problem, and a much larger conversation. “Female candidates are often slut-shamed and defamed during their runs for office,” she said. “Ms. Hill is entitled to sexual privacy just like any other public or private figure.”
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