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Katie Hill’s Downfall Is Revenge Porn Experts’ Fears Come to Life

The California congresswoman won't be the last woman to be brought down by a scandal centered on nonconsensual nudes.

by Brendan O'Connor
Oct 29 2019, 5:43pm

Katie Hill earlier this year. Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

For Mary Anne Franks, there are two messages women are supposed to take from Representative Katie Hill's resignation on Sunday.

"One, to women who are currently in politics, that they constantly have to be worried about the machinations of an abusive partner," Franks, who is president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting revenge porn, told VICE. "And two, to women who have not entered politics but may have aspirations to do so, that they will be subject to a level of scrutiny and criticism that their male counterparts will never have to endure."

On Sunday, after the House Ethics Committee announced that it was opening an investigation into allegations that Hill had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, the California congresswoman announced that she would resign. While denying the allegations that led to the investigation, Hill has admitted to having an affair with a member of her campaign staff before she entered office. "I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment," she wrote in a letter to constituents earlier this month.

Congressional sex scandals of this nature aren't unusual, but what is relatively new is the way Hill's behavior came to light. The right-wing media outlet that drove the coverage published not just texts from Hill but images of the congresswoman, some of them explicit. That was followed by the Daily Mail running even more gratuitous photos, prompting a "revenge porn" lawsuit from Hill. That coverage appears to have been driven by Hill's estranged husband of nine years, Kenneth Heslep, with whom she is in divorce proceedings.

And if Hill can be seen as being a victim of revenge porn—as well as a toxic combination of biphobia and misogyny—advocates worry that she won't be the last woman with a public position who will be brought down in this way.

On October 10, RedState, a conservative website, published a story alleging that Hill was having an affair with her congressional legislative director. According to the Los Angeles Times, the piece, which included comments from Heslep, didn't gain much traction; however, on October 18, RedState followed up with a story alleging that Hill, Heslep, and an unidentified female member of her campaign staff had been in a three-way relationship (or “throuple"), including photos of Hill and the female staffer.

Hill, who had been appointed vice chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, blamed "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," in a statement announcing her resignation.

"Nonconsensually publishing another person’s intimate images is just one of many tactics available to domestic abusers," said Carrie Goldberg, an attorney whose firm specializes in defending victims of revenge porn. "So-called revenge porn never happens in a vacuum."

"But for a vindictive ex who spread the images, made up seemingly false allegations about an affair with a current staffer, and put her in so much fear according to her resignation letter, none of this would have happened," Goldberg continued. "[Hill would] rather resign from her hard-earned congressional seat than suffer the uncertainty of what he might publicly do next."



Hill isn't the first member of Congress to be felled by revenge porn: In 2017, Texas's Joe Barton declined to run for reelection after a nude selfie of him leaked online. But according to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative's Franks, not only are women more likely to be targeted by so-called "revenge porn" than men, but LGBTQ women are especially so. In Hill's case, she said, it's hard to disentangle the biphobia and misogyny on display. "There’s a general reaction to women who don’t fit a certain stereotype that is activated by seeing women in power," Franks told VICE. "Katie Hill [is] both more likely to be a target and less likely to be able to garner the kind of sympathy that other women who might fulfill traditional ideas of femininity would."

The coverage of Hill's behavior in the right-wing media has treated her sexuality—both her bisexuality and the apparently consensual "throuple" she, her husband, and her campaign staffer participated in—as both titillating and condemnable. (The RedState reporter on the story is now promoting GOP candidates for the swing-district seat.) "I very much see the humiliation and resignation of Katie Hill as a combination of biphobia and wider far-right misogyny," Goldberg said. "My fear is that this will have a chilling effect on promising up and coming politicians who are women, LGBTQ, gender nonconforming, and decide it’s just not worth the risk."

As Franks put it: "We’re just at the very beginning of this."

Franks thinks that it's telling that the right-wing outlets who drove this coverage were acting on information provided by Hill's ex rather than the campaign staffer at the center of the congresswoman's admitted misconduct.

"If there were genuine concerns, that should have come from the staffer," Franks said. "The fact that there’s at least one other third party who decided to take that upon himself—whether the husband or someone else—means they don’t actually care about the wellbeing of that staffer or Katie Hill."

"It’s such an appropriation of concern and an exploitation of the logic of #metoo," she continued. "The people who are playing with these ideas have nothing but contempt for women."

The political machinations and media coverage have made it impossible to take Hill's affair with her campaign staffer, for which she has apologized, on its own terms. "Many people say she should have resigned for the separate issue that has come to light—a consensual affair a while ago with a campaigner," Goldberg said. "That showed bad judgment, but if she were a white male Republican, there’s no way in hell he’d resign nor be experiencing the level of humiliation and fear caused by her ex, the media, and the trolls piling on."

While Hill has stepped down, dozens of women have made credible allegations of rape and sexual assault against the president, who has responded by calling them liars. "The first and only conversation we should be having every day is Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and multiple members of Congress," Franks said. "Every day that we don’t is a day that we tell women they don’t matter."

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