How Revenge Porn Made Its Way to Congress and Ended with Rep. Katie Hill’s Resignation

On Sunday, Democratic lawmaker Katie Hill, the U.S. Representative for California’s 25th congressional district and one of the about 20 Millennials elected to the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, resigned from Congress. She’s not the first Congressperson to leave office due to a sex scandal, but unlike some of her former colleagues, the circumstances surrounding her case included nude photos of her allegedly being shared without her consent. That makes her a victim of revenge porn, a status that a 2016 Data & Society Research Institute study found she shares with one in 25 Americans. And considering the ubiquity of sexual images made possible by technology, as well as the fact that another study found that almost 1 in 10 adults have taken nude photos of or recorded others without their consent, the number of people who have to deal with revenge porn will only continue to grow.

So what happened in Representative Hill’s case? What was her response? And what does the future of revenge porn look like for millennial women like Hill?

 

 

The Katie Hill Timeline

When Hill, a former policy advocate for a nonprofit working with the homeless in California, ran for Congress in 2018, she had no experience running for office. She won anyways, unseating Republican Steve Knight and flipping her district. Her win also made her California’s first openly bisexual member of Congress.

Her first few months in Congress went well. She was elected to the Democratic House leadership team and spoke out on progressive issues like health care and housing. 

Earlier this month, conservative website RedState published a story that included intimate photographs of Rep. Hill and a campaign staffer. It also included text messages allegedly between the staffer and Kenny Heslep, Hill’s husband, from whom Hill is divorcing (she says he was “abusive”). Later, The Daily Mail published another story about Hill that included another nude photo of her, per BuzzFeed News.

The following week, the House Ethics Committee announced they would investigate separate allegations that Katie Hill had “an improper relationship with [a] staffer.” That same day, a letter that Hill wrote to her constituents was picked up by The New York Times. In it, she said that she had notified Capitol Hill police of the publishing of the photos, that the stories were “a smear campaign” by Republicans and her “husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me,” and that she wasn’t planning on stepping down from her post. The Los Angeles Times reported that the letter also included a denial of an alleged relationship with a congressional staffer, but that Hill did admit she was involved in a separate relationship with a campaign aide, saying, “I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment.”

While members of Congress aren’t allowed to engage in sexual relationships with their aides, per House rules, the rules don’t cover campaign staff. Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer, told the New York Times, “Clearly there is an inherent power differential between Congresswoman Hill and a young campaign staffer who worked for her, but there’s nothing unlawful about having a relationship with people who work for you as long as it is consensual.” Katz added, “But clearly this shows bad judgment.” 

 

 

This Sunday, Hill released a statement announcing that she was resigning from Congress. “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,” she wrote. On Monday, she repeated the message in a video announcement, where she also promised to “fight to ensure that no one else has to live through what I just experienced. Some people call this electronic assault [or] digital exploitation. Others call it revenge porn. As the victim of it, I call it one of the worst things that we can do to our sisters and our daughters.”

 

Some people call this electronic assault [or] digital exploitation. Others call it revenge porn. As the victim of it, I call it one of the worst things that we can do to our sisters and our daughters.

 

 

The Impact of Revenge Porn

As Hill noted in her statement, there are a lot of names for nonconsensual pornography, of which “revenge porn” is one (though not all nonconsensual pornography is considered revenge porn). 46 states and the District of Columbia have laws against it, and in California, Rep. Hill’s home state, it can land first-time offenders with up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000. But even when it’s successfully prosecuted and taken down — which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, if victims need to hire lawyers to issue copyright takedown requests, as Teen Vogue reported — victims often find that the photos can resurface and continue to cause pain. And the effects of having one’s privacy so violated are long-reaching; a study published in 2016 found that female victims of revenge porn can experience “severe and disruptive mental health effects,” including PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

A Time op-ed provocatively titled “Katie Hill Is the First Millennial Lawmaker to Resign Because of Nudes. She Won’t Be the Last” claimed that in a “rapidly shifting landscape of technology, sex, and power,” millennials — millennial women in particular — are more vulnerable to exploitation and all its negative effects than ever before. “Technology provides new and humiliating ways to document sexual encounters, and all sexual encounters — especially when they involve a public figure — are now subjected to brutal public dissection,” the author wrote.

 

Millennials — millennial women in particular — are more vulnerable to exploitation and all its negative effects than ever before.

 

She’s right in that technology allows users to document their sex lives; a 2015 survey found 88 percent of adults reported sending sexts, often to their romantic partners, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But does the existence of explicit photos have to mean that they’ll be exploited and used against the women taking them? 

Not against everyone, but certainly against some. The stat shared earlier about one in 25 Americans being victims of revenge porn means that over 13 million people have faced that particular kind of humiliation.

This type of exploitation adversely affects women, who are often shamed and demeaned for naked photos, whereas men can be teased or even celebrated. A 2015 article in The Guardian lays out some of its impacts on women: “Revenge porn is fundamentally used to shame, extort and harm women,” the writers noted. “Perpetrators of domestic violence and trafficking employ it to control women, to keep them captive, to keep them quiet. Trolling tells women (and others) that the digital space, a communal space, is not for their voices. Gendered hate speech online actively restricts the free speech of women.”

And while some people think the solution is for women to stop taking nude photos — an Australian police officer made headlines when he said people should “grow up” and stop taking the photos to avoid becoming victims — a 2019 study found that women often send nude photos to feel empowered. Is controlling women’s sex lives and modes of empowerment the right answer?

 

This type of exploitation adversely affects women, who are often shamed and demeaned for naked photos, whereas men can be teased or even celebrated.

 

Perhaps the best approach for now is for society to stop caring so much about relationships between consenting adults. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican whose politics differ greatly from Hill’s, nonetheless took to Twitter last week to defend her, asking, “Who among us would look perfect if every ex leaked every photo/text?” 

Who indeed?