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The Scandal That Brought Down a Congresswoman


Last week U.S. Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) resigned from Congress amid a lurid scandal that began when nude photos of her, her now estranged husband, and a 22-year-old campaign staffer engaged in a sexual encounter were published online without her consent. The publication that posted the photos also alleged that Hill was conducting an affair with a male legislative aid. While Hill admitted the relationship with the campaign staffer and apologized for it as “inappropriate,” she denied the affair with the legislative aid; however, the allegation prompted a House Ethics investigation. Some defended Hill, pointing to many powerful men that have done worse and remained in Congress or even higher offices. They decried the rush to judgment as a double standard that still exists despite the #MeToo movement.

Others, however, noted that the #MeToo movement would show no mercy to any male politician who tried to brush off sex with a female subordinate as merely “inappropriate.” They argued that this “victim feminism” is the real double standard, and the true success of the #MeToo movement is that the powerful—even powerful women—are being held accountable when they abuse their power.


The whole #MeToo movement centers on the inherent imbalance when someone in a position of power asserts him or herself over someone with less power. Whether this imbalance occurs as sexual harassment, in a sexual relationship, or as a sexual assault, the basis of it is a difference in power and an assertion of that power. This is why it is a violation of House Rules to have sexual relationships with staffers, and why Hill faced a House Ethics probe when the allegation of an affair between her and her legislative aide surfaced. Although Hill’s relationship with her campaign staffer was not technically against the rules, it also raised troubling issues of abuse of power. The campaign staffer was 10 years Hill’s junior, and of course, someone who worked for her.


The publication of the nude photos without the subject’s consent, is however, an entirely different issue. A Pew 2017 study found that 12% of Americans age 18-29 had been the victim of nonconsensual pornography. Nonconsensual pornography, better known as “revenge porn,” is illegal in 46 states, D.C. and the U.S. territory of Guam. (Wyoming, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Mississippi are the only states without laws against nonconsensual pornography.) But little has been done to crackdown on either those that provide the photos (in this case evidently Hill’s estranged husband) or the publications that post them. This is partly due to the fact that some state laws focus on the intent of the transmission or publication, making it illegal only if the intent was to cause harm.

In Georgia, transmitting and/or publishing so-called revenge porn is illegal under GA Code Title 16, Chapter 11, Article 3, Part 1, 16-11-90. Article 3 deals with Invasion of Privacy, and makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly and without consent transmit or publish nude photos or videos of an adult. A second offense is a felony. By focusing on consent rather than intent, Georgia’s law and those like it give victims greater recourse. Advocates of this approach support the 2019 SHIELD Act (Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution Act) proposed in the Senate this year by Kamala Harris.

Some remedies that could help victims of revenge porn mitigate the damage done to their reputations, professional and personal lives would be: better access to protection orders; access to court orders to have the online content removed; and prohibitions against discrimination against victims by employers.


The fact that there is so little enforcement of the laws against revenge porn leads to some deeply disturbing uses of it. The use that occurred with Hill is one such disturbing twist: its weaponization in politics. Although the provision of the photos by Hill’s soon-to-be-ex-husband presumably had no political motives, the publication of them by a conservative online site likely did: to damage a liberal, democratic representative. The resignation of Hill may have been due to her relationships with staffers, but the use of revenge porn in the process sets a dangerous precedent.


If you or someone you know has been the victim of nonconsensual pornography, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

Categories: congress, revenge porn, #MeToo
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