• Gerard Donley

Katie Hill and the Politics of Destruction

Updated: Dec 21, 2019

Something important happened in Washington, D.C. on November 3, 2019. Katie Hill, an optimistic 32-year-old freshman congresswoman from California, resigned her seat in disgrace following her estranged husband’s unauthorized release of nude photos of her. Examining the episode more deeply led me to conclude that Hill was not only victimized by her husband, she also was abandoned by her colleagues and exploited by the media because she is a woman. Her public humiliation brought her to the verge of suicide.

Prior to her election, Katie Hill pursued a career as a policy advocate and then became executive director of a California non-profit organization called People Assisting The Homeless (PATH). Her devotion to helping the least among us, the homeless, inspired her to run for public office. She was recognized quickly as a force to be dealt with in Washington.

Punished Without an Offense

What was Katie Hill’s crime? She broke no laws. But, the nude photos became the talk of Washington and a national scandal. Journalists eager to get a big scoop launched investigations and reported her husband’s allegation that Hill was involved in a consensual, intimate relationship with one of her key staffers. It was ultimately disclosed that Congresswoman Hill, who is openly bisexual, had engaged in a “throuple” relationship, one where two adults and she had consensual sex.

The House of Representatives has never before expelled

or forced a member to resign, merely for engaging in a

a consensual love affair with a staff member.

The House of Representatives has never before expelled or forced a member to resign, merely for engaging in a consensual love affair with a staff member. Though consensual sex with a staffer is “inappropriate” under congressional ethics rules, the traditional sanction for this violation is only a reprimand. Importantly, Ms. Hill continues to deny that any relationship with a staff member occurred.

Unlike previous cases of congressional sexual misconduct, Katie Hill was not accused of sexual assault or sexual harassment. Nor was she alleged to be sexting with teenagers or propositioning underage congressional pages.

More Shameful for a Woman?

It’s doubtful that a male congressman would step down if his private nude photos surfaced, or if he was known to have engaged in unconventional, consensual sex. Even congresspeople have the right to private intimacy.

Why then did Katie Hill feel compelled to resign? She bravely explained the painful details of her tragic descent in a New York Times opinion piece published on December 7. It’s a must-read for anyone who cares about the unfair treatment and unequal expectations of women in public office.

In her NY Times piece, Ms. Hill told a story of how her train was stopped on her way to meet with her lawyers in New York. A man had thrown himself in front of the train and was killed. She wrote that she “knew the despair that can lead someone to that place all too well. (She) had been there just the week before.”

Katie Hill’s marriage to Kenny Heslep was troubled for years. She tried to leave before her election to Congress, but he threatened to ruin her if she did. She went back to him. In June, she finally left for good.

He filed for divorce in July. A few months later, nude photos he took of Katie surfaced on the internet.

Initially, only a fringe, right-wing website posted the photos. But soon, the Daily Mail published them and exposed Ms. Hill’s naked body to the world. These events fit the definition of Cyber Exploitation, known more widely as “revenge porn.”

An Offense Without Punishment

It’s a crime under California and Washington, D.C. law to distribute private photos of someone’s intimate body parts with the intent to humiliate that person. But the laws exempt from prosecution any person who publishes such photos in the “public interest,” unless the victim can prove the publisher intended to cause her harm.

What conceivable “public interest” could there be in photographs of Katie Hill’s naked body other than the public’s insatiable, lurid curiosity and the media’s desire for revenue?

What conceivable “public interest” could there be in photographs of Katie Hill’s naked body other than the public’s insatiable, lurid curiosity and the media’s desire for revenue? Yet, in my research, I did not find any major news outlet, newspaper, or platform that condemned the media promoting the story. Only the Columbia Journalism Review questioned the propriety of even reporting the smear campaign.

The fact that a 32-year-old woman is sexually active, and that she permitted her lover to snap a few intimate pictures, is not newsworthy. And a rejected husband’s wish to ruin his wife’s prospects for a successful future should not be fulfilled by professional journalists.

In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, University of Miami School of Law professor and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, Mary Anne Franks said publishing the photos “was not only unethical but also possibly unlawful.” She added that publication “was a vile, politically motivated, misogynist act of voyeurism dressed up as journalism.”

Compounding further the unjust impact of these events on Katie Hill’s life, it was Jennifer Van Laar who wrote the original article with the photos in RedState, and who shared the byline in the Daily Mail. Van Laar is a Republican operative who worked for the candidate Katie Hill defeated in her 2016 run for Congress. So, as it turns out, this was doubly revenge porn. First, her soon-to-be ex-husband got to ruin Hill, as he promised he would. And second, the Republican loser, Steve Knight, achieved revenge for his failure to win the support of the voters.

Only Gladiators Need Apply

Contemporary American politics has become a blood sport. We’ve all witnessed the absence of courtesy and the abundance of meanness on both sides of the political divide. Name-calling was once derided as a weapon of people with no valid argument, a childish practice well-informed people needn’t resort to. Now, our daily dose of venomous political jousting is only as far away as our Twitter feed.

Civic-minded people with no stomach for cut-throat tactics, or who are unwilling to kick an opponent when he’s down, have no avenue into public office any longer. Who would step into an arena so full of assassins? The message to all considering a run for public office is clear: Only gladiators need apply.

Katie Hill left her job helping the homeless in California to apply her energy and her intellect to the search for solutions in Washington. Within a year, her political opponents took the dirt Kenny Heslep was shoveling and began to bury her with it.

As a woman, as a bisexual, Ms. Hill was especially vulnerable to the tawdry insinuations of her enemies. Even mainstream journalists reported the accusations and the existence of the intimate photos, merely to one-up the competition.

Just Politics

American politics has always had an ugly underbelly, with busy operatives digging up mud with which to humiliate opponents. But the depths we’ve sunk to when we metaphorically permit the stripping a young woman in the public square for the amusement of the masses may be too deep a trench to crawl out of.