Representative Katie Hill’s brief career in Congress unwound in the same way that Ernest Hemingway described bankruptcy taking place: gradually and then suddenly. On October 18, the right-wing outlet RedState published an article alleging sexual relationships between Hill and two staffers, along with an explicit photograph of Hill. Other right-leaning publications picked up the story, and it began rocketing around Twitter.
Most mainstream publications reported on the situation only after Hill released a statement on October 22, denying the first alleged relationship and decrying the photograph’s release as the work of her “abusive” husband. The next day, Hill released a second statement, acknowledging her “inappropriate” relationship with the second staffer. The House Ethics Committee quickly announced an investigation. On October 24, the Daily Mail released several additional explicit photos. On October 27, Hill resigned.
The Hill scandal has an uncanny feeling. It is both very familiar—the political sex scandal is quite literally a phenomenon as old as this country—and yet placed in a context that makes it appear strange and dreadful. As I wrote in Lawfare before Hill’s resignation, this is the first instance of which I am aware when a politically aligned publication has published an explicit photo of an opposition politician for apparent political gain. It’s both a sign of how ugly the political landscape could become and a reminder of how ugly, for the many ordinary people who have suffered this kind of abuse, the world already is.
Right-wing media has been getting a great deal of mileage out of the supposedly titillating nature of Hill’s love life. Hill was one of the first members of Congress to identify publicly as bisexual, and the campaign staffer with whom she was in a relationship is female. An inordinate amount of media coverage has focused on the fact that the staffer was involved with both Hill and her husband. (“This is a whole lot less hot than you might think,” the right-wing political commentator Kurt Schlichter wrote on Twitter.)
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Putting aside the leering, though, the story is appalling and sad. By her own account, Hill engaged in a profound breach of responsibility by engaging in a sexual relationship with someone who was working for her—and by doing so while running for public office. “The mistakes I made that brought me to this moment will haunt me for the rest of my life,” she said this afternoon in her final speech on the House floor. Members of Congress are no stranger to bad behavior. But in a time when Americans are remapping the difficult landscape of sex and power in the workplace, it would be willfully naive to shove aside the uncomfortable dynamics of Hill’s relationship with a staffer who was almost a decade her junior, and a recent college graduate.
Yet all of this must be separated from the question of whether or not the photos of Hill should have been made public. That, at least, has a clear answer: no. The photographs fit into the category of what is colloquially called “revenge porn” and what experts call “nonconsensual pornography”: explicit images of a person that may or may not have been taken consensually, but that are released to the public without the victim’s approval.
Hill stated in her speech that the photos of her “were taken without my knowledge, let alone my consent.” She has blamed her husband, whom she is divorcing, for the photos’ release. If her allegations prove true, she will be far from alone: As the law professors Mary Anne Franks and Danielle Citron (a colleague of mine) write, the release of sensitive images or video against the will of the person depicted “is often a form of domestic violence.” The vast majority of victims of this practice are female (though not all: Former Texas Representative Joe Barton appears to have been a victim of the practice in 2017).
And though research is scant at this point, sexual minorities may be particularly vulnerable. Ari Ezra Waldman, the founder and director of the Institute for CyberSafety, says that nonconsensual pornography of gay women may most commonly be released “when women come out as lesbians after breaking up with men”; the specific circumstances of Hill’s case obviously differ from this scenario, but there is a common thread in that Hill’s male former partner may have retaliated against her by releasing photos of her relationship with a woman.
The effects of nonconsensual pornography can be devastating. Victims report severe anxiety and depression. Many lose their jobs. Some are afraid to even step outside. “Ever since those images first came out, I barely got out of bed,” Hill said in her final speech, going on, “Today is the first time I’ve left my apartment since the photos ... were released, and I’m scared.” Writing in Vox, the victims’-rights lawyers Carrie Goldberg and Annie Seifullah describe how their respective former partners used intimate photographs of them to try to destroy their careers. (Goldberg has since announced that her firm is representing Hill.) It’s for this reason—recognizing the harm that nonconsensual pornography represents—that the vast majority of states plus the District of Columbia have criminalized the practice in recent years.
Both the D.C. law and the relevant law in Hill’s home state of California exclude images released on matters of public interest. RedState and the Daily Mail will surely point to this loophole if Hill sues the publications, as she has threatened to do, though whether the outlets would be successful is far from clear. Hill’s underlying conduct is indeed newsworthy, but as for the photos themselves, there is little call to publish something so personally damaging.
Nonconsensual pornography is a form of sexual violence optimized for the internet age: The ease of communication in an era of smartphones can transform a picture from an expression of intimacy and trust into a means of humiliating a person at scale, not only before friends and colleagues, but in front of the entire world. In this way, it seems at home in 2019, when the internet often seems to be a large collection of tools for hurting people with great efficiency. The actress Scarlett Johansson, confronted with “deep fakes” of her face superimposed onto the bodies of porn actresses in graphic sex scenes, may have put it best: “The internet is a vast wormhole of darkness that eats itself.”
Hill’s public humiliation is a sign of where that wormhole might be taking American politics. Now that the norm against publishing damaging explicit photographs has been broken, there is one less check against the ability of, say, an opposition researcher—or an unfriendly foreign government—to make use of a deep fake or a hacked photograph to swing the polls against a political candidate. (Notably, Politico reports that the RedState writer who first released Hill’s photo is publicly advocating support for Republicans considering running for the now-vacant seat.) It’s a sign of further rot in a political system still struggling to respond effectively to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. As if to drive the point home, George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign foreign-policy aide indicted for lying to the FBI over his knowledge of Russian election interference in 2016, is now floating his candidacy in Hill’s old district.
Decrying the bleakness of the online world is, at this point, something of a national pastime. But not very long ago, before the 2016 election, the internet still seemed capable of breaking down rigid structures of power and engineering a better world. And yet, underneath this cheerful veneer, it has always been a hostile place for the same people who are often targets of hostility in the real world.
Despite the utopian promise of human connection freed from the limitations of physical space, women online have never been able to escape being reduced to their bodies. “Tits or GTFO”—i.e., show us your bare breasts or leave—was for a long time the traditional greeting to a female user who announced herself on a predominantly male forum. In her book, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Citron describes the case of the blogger and programmer Kathy Sierra, who was effectively driven off the internet in 2007 by a coordinated, cross-platform harassment campaign. She also chronicles the many, many women whose lives have been damaged by nonconsensual pornography.
This ugliness seemed to metastasize and consume the internet as a whole after 2016. Many of the issues major technology companies are struggling with now—the presence of harassment; the existence of bad actors seeking to game the system, whether to promote hate speech or interfere in an election; the problem of users abandoning platforms plagued by trolls—have always been there, but were primarily hurting populations whose concerns were much easier for tech firms to write off.
Katie Hill’s story is a vivid illustration of the connection between these older harms and their newly visible scale. She is the victim of nonconsensual pornography, apparently at the hands of a former partner she describes as abusive, and much of the glee over her departure seems motivated by a familiar distaste for women in positions of authority—so far, so typical.
Yet her case is also very new in what it says about the poisoned state of the American political environment in an age of hyperpolarization and social media. The irony is that during her campaign, Hill, despite her self-presentation as a new kind of politician and her frank promises of holding power to account, seems not to have escaped the pull of unhealthy currents of power in her own personal life. In this, too, she is far from alone.
Having now left Congress, Hill has promised to devote her time to fighting nonconsensual pornography: “I refuse to let this experience scare off other women,” she said on the House floor. If she is able to lobby effectively for increased protections for other victims—perhaps including federal legislation against nonconsensual pornography, which Congress has so far failed to pursue—then perhaps something good will have come of all this mess. The American political system, including the media and large platforms considering questions of content moderation, will have to grapple with how to respond to the publication of similar photographs in the future.
But it would be a mistake to focus only on the larger-scale question of what nonconsensual pornography means for democracy and ignore what it means for the many people who are quietly harmed by it every day. If those people are once again pushed aside, as they were for so long, then perhaps the crucible of 2016 will have taught us little after all.