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Opinion

Opinion: Is California Rep. Katie Hill a victim of revenge porn?

Katie Hill
Rep. Katie Hill (D-Santa Clarita)
(Los Angeles Times)

Rep. Katie Hill (D-Santa Clarita) has been a rising star among House Democrats since her surprise victory over Republican incumbent Steve Knight in the traditionally conservative 25th District in 2018. But her star dimmed this week when the House launched an ethics investigation into allegations made by Hill’s estranged husband that she had an affair with a male congressional staffer.

Under new #MeToo-inspired House rules, that’s not allowed. It’s also just wrong for a boss to engage in a relationship with a subordinate, no matter the genders of those involved.

The allegation (which Hill denies) was reported by Redstate.com accompanied by texts and photos that mainly point to a relationship with a female campaign staffer (which Hill admits, and which would not be a violation of ethics rules). Hill broke up with both the female former campaign staffer and her husband last year. Her husband’s texts and a social media post suggest she left him for the male congressional staffer.

In any case, the House is right to take the allegations seriously even though Hill blames the revelations on an “abusive husband” from whom she is in the process of divorcing and “Republican operatives on the internet” hoping to discredit her. The actual source of the texts and photos has not been publicly identified, but RedState.com identified Hill’s husband, Kenny Heslep, as a source of the affair allegations and as the source of texts about Hill’s drinking. Although most cases of sexual misconduct involve powerful male perpetrators preying on female subordinates, women in power aren’t immune from despicable behavior and must be held accountable too.

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But if Hill is correct about the motives for the photos’ release, then the distribution of the more graphic photos published Wednesday may have been a miscalculation, making Hill seem more of a victim than a perpetrator.

In several of them, Hill is nude and in intimate (though not graphic) contact with a woman — presumably, though not definitely, the female campaign staffer with whom Hill admits having an affair. In one full-body shot meant to highlight a bikini-line tattoo that appears to be some version of an Iron Cross, Hill is holding a bong, with her genitals and one exposed breast crudely painted out.

Not only are the pictures uncomfortably intimate, they may be a criminal invasion of privacy under the “revenge porn” laws in California and the District of Columbia. California’s newly strengthened laws make it a civil crime to disseminate sexually explicit photos of someone else without their consent and with the intent to do them harm. The law does define criminal photos as exposing specific body parts or including a sex act. It’s not clear if the black box hiding Hill’s nipple or the scribbled lines covering her groin area are enough to offer a defense from the law.

D.C.’s “revenge porn” law has a similar requirement, raising the alarming prospect that the distribution and publication of the images may not violate the law because of the way they were lightly edited, regardless of whether they were intended to humiliate Hill.

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No matter what the House Ethics Committee or the Capitol Hill police end up concluding, however, no one is coming out of this smelling good. Ah, divorce.

Updates:
8:22 PM, Oct. 24, 2019: 8:20 PM, Oct. 24, 2019: This post was re-edited.

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