When Democratic Rep. Katie Hill won election in 2018, she gained attention for securing a tough district held by a Republican. She also made history as the first openly bisexual congresswoman from California. Now she’s capturing headlines again, only this time for all the wrong reasons.
Last week, RedState, a conservative news website, ran a story accusing Hill of having extramarital affairs with a female campaign staffer and a male congressional aide. The article included a nude photo of Hill with her breasts obscured. On Thursday, The Daily Mail published more sexually explicit photos of Hill, along with breathless details of her romantic relationships. As a result, private photos of her are spreading like a rot online, and there’s little Hill can do to stop it. Intimate, personal snapshots of her life are currently being ogled by anyone with a Wi-Fi connection.
Hill has confirmed that she was in a relationship with the campaign worker, though she denies any romantic involvement with her congressional aide. The House Committee on Ethics has begun an investigation, since it is against House rules for representatives to have sexual relationships with congressional staff. (Those rules do not appear to extend to campaign staff.)
Much of the media coverage surrounding Hill has focused on her sex life; who she did or did not sleep with. The fascination likely stems from the fact that she is LGBTQ and allegedly involved in a polyamorous relationship. But by focusing on her sexuality, an important fact is being lost in translation.
Hill is not accused of committing a crime by dating her campaign staffer, but she may be a victim of one. In most states, including California, it is illegal to share sexually explicit photos of a person without his or her consent. That’s commonly called revenge porn ― and in Hill’s home state, that could be punished by up to six months in jail.
It is unclear how the news outlets acquired the photos of Hill. In a statement released Wednesday, Hill said, “I am going through a divorce from an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me. I am disgusted that my opponents would seek to exploit such a private matter for political gain.” Hill did not elaborate further or offer evidence linking her estranged husband to the leaked photos. He did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
On Thursday, Hill sent a cease and desist letter to the Daily Mail, demanding the news outlet remove the photos they had published.
“Katie Hill, like many women in marriages that end in separation, endured years of emotional abuse from a now-estranged husband,” her lawyers wrote in the letter, which HuffPost obtained. “By spreading these purported claims, and dehumanizing and shaming images across the globe, you have perpetuated the cycle of abuse Representative Hill has endured.”
HuffPost reached out to the Daily Mail for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
Under California’s “revenge porn” statute, it is illegal for a person to intentionally distribute “the image of the intimate body part or parts of another identifiable person ... under circumstances in which the persons agree or understand that the image shall remain private, the person distributing the image knows or should know that distribution of the image will cause serious emotional distress, and the person depicted suffers that distress.”
Revenge porn may be used as a tactic in abusive relationships to control, blackmail or harm an intimate partner. But contrary to popular belief, images do not have to be shared by a vengeful ex to be considered “revenge porn.” A person who shares nonconsensual pornography for financial gain or for another reason can still be engaging in the practice.
“Anybody who released or published Ms. Hill’s image should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer specializing in sexual privacy violations and author of “Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls.”
She noted that many states’ “revenge porn laws” have exceptions when the distribution is newsworthy. “There is nothing newsworthy here,” she said. ”Ms. Hill is entitled to sexual privacy just like any other public or private figure.”
Female lawmakers are often attacked for their sexuality ― especially if they are young and attractive like Hill, said Jennifer Piscopo, an associate professor of politics at Occidental College who has studied gender and politics.
“It’s a way to undermine their authority, to call into question their ability, and to make them feel intimidated,” she said.
The more prominent women politicians are, the more likely they are to sustain and receive online abuse, Piscopo added.
“Hill was thought to be a rising star in the Democratic Party. Not just because of her gender but also the way she won that close race in California,” she said. “That makes her more vulnerable to attacks.”
Hill has apologized for having a sexual relationship with her campaign worker, saying in a statement that “even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate.” But she has pushed back on the idea that her personal life and private photos should be anyone’s business, calling the reports a “smear campaign.”
“This coordinated effort to try to destroy me and the people close to me is despicable and will not succeed,” she said. “I, like many women who have faced attacks like this before, am stronger than those who want me to be afraid.”