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Amid congresswoman’s departure, lawmakers grapple with ‘revenge porn’

“I am leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse — this time with the entire country watching,” Representative Katie Hill charged in her final floor speech Thursday.
“I am leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse — this time with the entire country watching,” Representative Katie Hill charged in her final floor speech Thursday.Mario Tama/Getty Images/Getty Images

One of the many disturbing aspects of the sudden downfall of Representative Katie Hill — a bold California newcomer elected to Congress amid the women’s wave of 2018 — was the source of the humiliating evidence that prompted her resignation.

Accused of sexual trysts with two aides, Hill was doomed when naked photos of her circulated online. She alleged they came from her estranged husband and suggested she would take legal action in California, where a law prohibiting “revenge porn” was enacted in 2013.

“I am leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality, and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse — this time with the entire country watching,” Hill charged in her final floor speech Thursday, calling the situation “the dirtiest gutter politics that I’ve ever seen.”

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While apologizing for an inappropriate relationship with one of her aides, the 32-year-old Hill asserts she’s a victim of so-called revenge porn, in which compromising photos shared in intimacy are disseminated publicly in a moment of spite. Hill, whose last day is Friday, is apparently the first person to leave Congress amid a scandal over nonconsensual pornography, but advocates have long warned that young politicians who came of age in a digital era could be targets. And they’ve been pushing lawmakers to modernize policies to confront the vicious realities of today’s relationships playing out on a virtual stage.

RELATED: Jeneé Osterheldt: Katie Hill was wrong. So is revenge porn

Forty-six states have enacted laws barring the non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with varying degrees of enforceability. But it’s currently not illegal under federal or Massachusetts law to wield compromising images or spread them publicly.

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“The criminal code doesn’t reflect the reality of modern life,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who has pushed two federal bills aimed at stopping revenge porn and “sextortion.”

“It is important to have a federal law because these images can be posted in a state that may not have protections but can have ramifications across the country and around the globe,” Clark added. “We need a federal law that, wherever the perpetrator is in the United States, we are able to reach them.”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito introduced legislation that would bar revenge porn early this year after the Legislature failed to act on their bill in 2017. Massachusetts bars the nonconsensual recording of sexually explicit images but does not have a law barring the distribution of images that were lawfully obtained. The Baker-Polito bill seeks to close that gap by creating a felony offense for adults and a potential misdemeanor for teens.

“It’s sort of personally heartbreaking to me that Massachusetts hasn’t been able to pull it together,” said Mary Anne Franks, who drafted the first model criminal statute on nonconsensual pornography and who previously taught at Harvard College. Now a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, Franks heads the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a nonprofit that combats online abuses that threaten civil rights and civil liberties.

Franks is among those who suspects that Hill’s experience will kick-start legislative efforts to deter and criminalize revenge porn. She helped draft the SHIELD act, filed this spring, which would make it a federal crime to share private, sexually explicit, or nude images without consent. It is intended to be a deterrent to exposure that can never be undone, despite the penalties.

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Franks pointed to the 2014 hacking scandal that led to the online distribution of private naked photos of celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence. Long after the victims cried foul, the photos were still available online – except for those of Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, who said she was a minor when her pictures were taken, making them child pornography.

“The only possible explanation is that people are actually worried about going to jail for child porn,” said Franks. “A federal law says, ‘this is serious.’ ”

State laws vary in their effectiveness, she said. Even the California law that Hill has cited is fairly weak, classifying the offense as a minor misdemeanor and applying it to a narrow set of circumstances, in which both parties agreed that the image would remain private, she noted.

“We know that this type of harassment, using these images and publishing them without consent, is on the rise,” said Clark, a cosponsor of the SHIELD bill and the lead sponsor of the Online Safety Modernization Act, which would make it a crime to use sexually explicit pictures as blackmail for money or leverage in a relationship. “This is not something that is going to go away or correct course without intervention.”

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The departure of Hill — one of the rising female stars first elected in the 2018 midterms — is a bitter irony for advocates of women’s advancement in politics. She is the first to be toppled by new #MeToo-era rules intended to protect women from abuses of power in the male-dominated Congress. The House Code of Conduct of 2019 prohibits sexual relationships with aides.

Hill denies an affair with a male congressional staffer that would have violated the code. However, she admits an “inappropriate” relationship with a young female aide who worked for the campaign before the election. Reports have suggested Hill and her husband were involved a consensual three-way relationship with that female aide, who was also seen in pictures online.

Her estranged husband, Kenny Heslep, said his computer was hacked before the publication of the photos, his father told Buzzfeed. Accusations about the male aide originated on Heslep’s Facebook page, however, and the Buzzfeed story suggests Heslep also offered information to a podcaster. Heslep could not immediately be reached for comment.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not defend Hill, who was part of her leadership team, but called her an outstanding public servant in remarks to reporters Thursday. Pelosi urged all individuals to be careful with digital photos.

“Regardless of any errors in judgment that anyone may have made, it’s shameful that she’s been exposed to public humiliation by way of cyberexploitation,” Pelosi said, “and I caution everyone that they, too, may be subjected to that.”

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While many were critical of Hill’s alleged relationships with subordinates, some also questioned her readiness to step down, noting many men, even in the House, have held their ground against allegations of sexual misconduct.

Hill referenced them in her floor speech Thursday, reserving her harshest scorn for President Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault and rape. She said she cast her last vote in the House to impeach Trump “on behalf of the women of the United States of America.”

Advocates of legislation to address revenge porn say the first congressional resignation linked to the problem will not be the last.

“What we have been saying for many years is that one of the many, many terrible consequences of nonconsensual pornography is how it forces women out of positions of power and discourages women from reaching positions of power,” Franks said. “I can’t help but think about every young woman who’s looking at the story thinking, ‘I have political aspirations but I’m too afraid that maybe something is going to happen to me.’ ”


Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert