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Rep. Katie Hill Becomes a Martyr of Revenge Porn

As the new decade opens, the problems with the internet from the old decade still linger. For instance, revenge porn and the non-consensual sharing of intimate photographs were once limited to high schools and colleges. However, the issues have now spread into the workplace and even into the halls of Congress.

In early October 2019, Rep. Katie Hill’s estranged husband accused her of having an affair with a male congressional staffer. A few weeks later, several photographs surfaced depicting Hill nude and in intimate contact with a female campaign staffer.

In one full body shot, Hill is holding a bong, with her genitals and one exposed breast crudely painted out. In response, the House of Representatives launched an ethics investigation into the alleged affairs.

The ethics investigation against Rep. Hill was triggered by a change to House rules passed at the height of the #MeToo era. Between 2017 and 2018, nine lawmakers — eight men and one woman — resigned over varying degrees of sexual misconduct allegations.

In the wake of the allegations, the House of Representatives added an internal rule that bars lawmakers from engaging in sexual relations with anyone who works in their congressional office or on any committees on which they serve.

Hill denied having a relationship with her legislative director, which would be a violation of House rules, but admitted that she and her husband had a consensual relationship with a member of her campaign. With the launch of the ethics inquiry, Hill became the first member of Congress to face investigation for a possible violation of the rule. Hill announced her resignation on October 27, 2019.

However, releasing the photos may also constitute a crime. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have laws banning revenge porn, but there is no comparable statute at the federal level. California’s privacy laws make it illegal to distribute sexually explicit photos of another individual without their consent and with the intent to do them harm.

The law defines “sexually explicit photos” as exposing specific body parts or including a sex act. D.C. has similar laws against revenge porn. The black box hiding Hill’s nipple and the scribbled lines covering her groin area arguably render the photographs non-sexually explicit, regardless of whether they were intended to humiliate Hill.

Further Laws against Revenge Porn May Not Be Coming

Although most states have laws against revenge porn, they greatly differ between states. Different states will disagree as to what counts as “porn,” especially since the Supreme Court has never been able to come up with a workable definition of pornography.

Some laws require that the sexual images be placed on the internet while other laws only require “distribution.” Other states make revenge porn a form of sexual harassment – though depending of the severity of the actions, harassment usually requires a pattern and/or a series of abuse.

There is currently no federal law against revenge pornography and thus no uniform laws against revenge pornography across the country. Indeed, such laws have been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other civil liberty groups as a violation of free speech and free press.

Conversely, women’s rights groups have lobbied hard for such laws as revenge porn, especially when used in the workplace or politics, can silence women. Tech companies have also lobbied for stipulations and conditions to be added to any revenge porn laws that are passed.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself from Revenge Porn?

The best steps to combating revenge porn depend on the context of the situation. If your children in high school, or even middle school, are the victims of revenge porn, you should contact the police immediately.

Putting sexual images of minors on the internet is illegal distribution of child pornography. Such images should be removed as soon as possible, and the distributors should either be punished (if they are adults) or heavily reprimanded if they are also minors.

Addressing revenge porn in the workplace may differ depending on the facts. Sexual relations between consenting co-workers might be a violation of workplace policies, but there are no laws against it. Revenge porn between co-workers would only trigger anti-revenge porn laws without many other concerns.

On the other hand, sexual relations between supervisor and regular employees may raise issues other than revenge pornography. Congress introduced new rules against sexual relations between representatives and their subordinates because of questions regarding consent – those same issues regarding sexual abuse and hostile work environment also are present in other supervisor-employee relations in the private sector.

Jason Cheung

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