Katie Hill’s Time in Congress Is Over. Journalism’s Fraught Relationship with Revenge Porn Isn’t.

Her relationship with a campaign staffer was wrong. So was the decision to publish the photos.

Then-Rep. Katie Hill is caught mid-word during a news conference demanding the production of documents related to Americans health care in the Texas v. United States lawsuit.

Katie Hill in Washington in April.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a lengthy personal essay by Katie Hill, the California Democrat who resigned from Congress in October after right-wing news outlets published lightly censored naked photos of her in a story exposing her romantic relationship with a campaign staffer.

The piece describes the feelings of panic, humiliation, and guilt Hill endured in the days after the photos—one with the staffer, some without—were published. Two days after she announced her resignation, thinking about the millions of people who’d seen those intimate images, Hill writes, she came close to attempting suicide, an experience she recounts in vivid detail.

“I was overwhelmed by everything—by how many people had seen my naked body, by the comments, the articles, the millions of opinions, the texts, the calls,” Hill writes. “I would start shaking, crying, throwing up. It was hard to talk to my family because I knew they were going through so much, too.”

Hill believes her estranged husband Kenny Heslep, whom she has called “abusive,” is responsible for sending the photos to the outlets that published them, along with texts between him, her, and the campaign staffer they’d dated, who was 22 when their relationship began in 2017. (Heslep has denied that he was the source of the photos and texts; his father has said Heslep was hacked.) In the Times, Hill goes into more, though not much, detail about Heslep’s alleged abuse: She alleges that he’d already threatened to “ruin” her life when she said she wanted a divorce a few weeks before the 2018 election that sent her to Congress to represent a district she’d flipped from red to blue. “I knew he could, so I went back to him and finished the campaign. But, after five months on the job and with the toxicity of our relationship growing worse, I knew I had to finally leave once and for all,” she writes. “The fear that my husband would ruin me hung over me every day.”

In an interview with the Daily Beast’s Molly Jong-Fast, Hill said she “knew what [Heslep] meant” when he said he would take her down if she left. She already knew “he had taken the pictures and posted them to the wife-swapping website without my knowledge.” But she also assumed no journalistic outlet would publish them, and she wanted to extricate herself from a damaging marriage. Hill, who is 32, had been with her husband almost half her life, since she was 16 and he was 20. “When you’re with somebody so long, you’re not able to identify toxic behaviors, you think it’s normal. You don’t have anything for comparison,” Hill said.

But one news outlet did publish some of the photos: RedState, which had already published a piece about another Heslep allegation, that Hill had left him for a member of her congressional staff (which Hill has repeatedly denied). The author of the second RedState article, the one with the nude photo, had previously worked for the congressman Hill ousted and is now encouraging readers to support the Republican running to replace her. She clearly shouldn’t have been the one to write the piece—she is not a neutral observer. But many journalists still believed the photo’s publication was warranted, given that it provided evidence that Hill had potentially abused her position of authority.

When I polled my Slate colleagues for a podcast segment on Hill, more than half thought RedState was in the right. And a congressional rule, adopted in 2018, forbids relationships between House members and their staff. It doesn’t explicitly cover relationships with campaign staff, only congressional staff, but the intent is clear. If RedState hadn’t published the nude photo, some argued, readers might not have believed that Hill and her husband had dated the campaign staffer, and the clothed photos of Hill kissing and hugging the staffer weren’t convincing evidence that the relationship was sexual in nature.

I never believed it was necessary to publish the photo to report on Hill’s ethical misstep. If RedState couldn’t convince readers of Hill’s relationship with its reporting, perhaps the fault lies with RedState being a partisan news outlet that assigns political hit pieces to campaign operatives for the other side. Another news outlet could have reported the story without needing to use Hill’s naked body to prove its claims. And I didn’t think Hill deserved what happened next, either: the Daily Mail’s publication of an assortment of nude photos of her from long before she decided to enter politics.

Hill’s essay should be another opportunity for journalists to weigh the misconduct the photo helped reveal against the harm its dissemination caused and the precedent it set. Hill hasn’t been accused of sexual harassment or assault, the type of conduct that prompted passage of the congressional rule whose spirit, if not letter, she violated. Her relationship was wrong, which Hill has acknowledged, due to its potential for exploitation, retaliation, and favoritism. “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,” Hill wrote in a letter to constituents that confirmed her relationship with the campaign staffer (and again denied Heslep’s allegation that she’d also dated a congressional aide).

Was it a grave enough abuse of power and breach of public trust that Hill ought to have resigned from her office? I think it was. Hill might agree, though she has talked far more about the nude photos that were published than about her inappropriate relationship. In her farewell speech, she said she was stepping down because she was tired of being used by “the right-wing media to drive clicks and expand their audience by distributing intimate photos of me … for the sexual entertainment of millions.” Was proving the relationship to the public an essential act of journalism? Yes. Did it merit the nonconsensual circulation of nude photos, or would a written-through report that would have drawn the attention of Republican lawmakers—who could have then raised a stink and brought the allegations to the House Ethics Committee—have sufficed?

To me, this gets at the heart of the problem with what happened to Katie Hill: It seems that she ended up leaving Congress not because she was confronted with credible allegations of wrongdoing that warranted resignation, nor because of a damning or distracting Ethics Committee investigation, but because she was humiliated by journalists who agreed to go along with a sexual revenge plot. Is that what healthy, democratic political accountability looks like?

These questions would still be warranted if Hill were a man. But the intersection of sex, shame, and politics is unavoidably gendered. Women’s sexual behavior is scrutinized through a lens of titillation and evaluated on a scale of propriety that differs from men’s. Images of their bodies are more readily consumed as objects of sexual desire or disgust, and female sexuality is more readily perceived as shameful, deviant, or incompatible with the gravitas of political leadership. “A sexually explicit image of a woman places her in greater jeopardy of social stigmatization and repercussions than an otherwise equivalent man,” read an article on nonconsensual pornography published in Psychology of Violence, an American Psychological Association journal, earlier this year.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the vast majority of sex scandals implicating male politicians have involved more straightforward stories of misconduct—such as sexual harassment or campaign finance violations, not consensual relationships with subordinates—and no accompanying compendia of nude photos provided to news outlets by disgruntled former partners. (Explicit photos of Texas Rep. Joe Barton were nonconsensually disseminated in 2017, but they were published by a Twitter user, not a journalist.) Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic has called Hill’s case, one of the few political sex scandals implicating a woman, “the first instance in which a politically aligned publication—or, indeed, any publication—has released nonconsensual pornography depicting a politician of the opposing party affiliation” for political gain. It almost certainly won’t be the last. As more women enter politics, especially young women who’ve come up in the age of digital photography, discreet phone cameras, and sexting, people looking to humiliate or blackmail a woman in power may see the Hill scenario as an indication of how eagerly partisan news outlets will publish nude images of their political adversaries.

The Hill case offers an opening for journalists to reflect on the moral questions raised by political “revenge porn,” not just the legal ones.

According to attorney Erica Johnstone, a privacy law specialist who co-founded the online-privacy nonprofit Without My Consent, sexual privacy law is still evolving when it comes to public figures. “In the typical revenge porn scenario involving private individuals whose affairs are not of broad public interest, we are moving toward a bright line rule that sex tapes are out of bounds,” she said. This is the result of a “Herculean 10-year effort” to establish precedent and pass legislation that bans the nonconsensual dissemination of explicit images, now active in 46 states. For politicians, Johnstone told me, it’s still true that privacy rights could cede to the public’s interest in knowing about matters of public import. “Assuming there is a legitimate public concern, then the analysis shifts to how much visual content, if any, is needed to tell that story?” she said. “The line between legitimate public concern reporting and gratuitous invasions of privacy will be very fact and photo-specific in politician cases.”

If Hill decided to sue RedState, which published the first nude photo of Hill with her campaign staffer, and the Daily Mail, which also published solo nude photos of Hill, RedState would have a much better shot at proving that its work was in the public interest since the website only ran one photo to corroborate its reporting that Hill had a sexual relationship with an employee. (Hill’s lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Daily Mail, and she’s said she is pursuing “all of our available legal options.”) But Johnstone is clear on where she stands. “We need an absolute bright line rule that it is not newsworthy under any situation to do this to someone,” she said. “There’s no news you’re learning from the publication of her nonconsensual nude photos that you couldn’t get from a report.”

For journalists, the lines aren’t as clear-cut, especially in the years since the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit propelled Gawker into bankruptcy. News outlets have always had an interest in maintaining looser defamation and privacy laws, both to protect their ability to aggressively report on public figures and for their own long-term survival. Bright legal lines could discourage reporters from investigating urgent matters of public importance, even in a legally defensible manner, if their employers aren’t willing to take the financial risk of a potential lawsuit.

But the Hill case offers an opening for journalists to reflect on the moral questions raised by political “revenge porn,” not just the legal ones. In her recent essay and interviews, Hill seems determined to forefront her humanity, lest she be written into history as just another politician felled by a sex scandal. She’s asking voters and journalists to contemplate two truths at once: that she did wrong, and that the distribution of her nude photos was a disproportionately harmful and unnecessary response to her wrongdoing. Concerns of sexual privacy still have a place in accountability journalism; the personal costs of publishing nude photos of a public figure without consent should be weighed alongside legal risk. Hill’s experience makes clear that explicit images of bad-behaving politicians can function less as unavoidably prurient bits of vital public knowledge and more as vehicles for excessive, instantaneous punishment. It’s usually possible to report on a politician’s misconduct without parading her naked through the public square.

Last month, political organizer Ashley Fairbanks told NPR that in her work training female political candidates, she hears a lot about the concerns that keep women from running for office. “It’s just something I hear about very frequently when people talk about, what is a fear? Why would you not run?” she said. “Once they’re really pushed to answer that question, it comes up to these privacy concerns.” Women worry that people who don’t want them in office will distribute embarrassing, explicit images from their pasts, Fairbanks said, the kind of images that likely exist for many women—and men—in the next generation of political leaders. In the near future, there will almost certainly be many more cases like Hill’s to test the parameters of sexual privacy law for public figures. More lawsuits and judicial opinions will set new legal standards. But there will be a thornier question journalists and publishers will continue to face: Even when publishing nude photos of politicians is legally defensible, does that make it right?

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