power

‘Being Careful’ Won’t Prevent Revenge Porn

Katie Hill and Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Getty Images

On Thursday afternoon, Representative Katie Hill delivered her final speech on the floor of the House. Hill is resigning after the conservative website Red State published nude photos of her and reported that she’d had a sexual relationship with a campaign aide. In her speech, Hill was defiant, even angry, decrying “a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality,” and subjected her to humiliation and abuse. But hours before her powerful remarks, the leader of her party adopted a more patronizing tone. In a closed-door meeting with members of her caucus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi bemoaned the fate of their “darling Katie” and added, “It goes to show you, we should say to young candidates, and to kids in kindergarten really, be careful when transmitting photos.” She later repeated that sentiment to the press. Though she called the leak of the photos a “profound violation,” she also added, “I caution everyone that they too may be subjected to [that], so to be careful.”

Pelosi’s disappointment is understandable: Hill was a promising freshman, often referred to as a “rising star,” who flipped her California district from red to blue last November. But in her comments to the press, the Speaker made it clear that she didn’t grasp the severity of the abuse that helped derail Hill’s career, nor did she understand who was truly at fault for the leak. There are two Hill stories, and they shouldn’t be conflated. One is a scandal and the other is a crime. Hill’s choice to engage in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate doesn’t change the fact that she was the victim of revenge porn.

Let’s get this out of the way: Hill was right to resign — not because of photos that were taken in private and shared against her will, but because she slept with a woman who worked for her congressional campaign. While that may not explicitly violate congressional ethics rules, it’s a resignation-worthy offense; from a workers’-rights perspective, her infraction is obvious. Employers shouldn’t sleep with the people they manage. Even when these relationships are consensual, they reinforce a balance of power that disadvantages a worker in relation to their boss.

Pelosi could’ve said this. She didn’t. In public, she has instead focused on the nude photos of Hill, which would be an acceptable decision if she’d discussed the matter with the gravity it deserves. The leaked photos are revenge porn, which is both a form of interpersonal abuse and a crime in California and Washington, D.C. Other than vague references to a “violation,” Pelosi hasn’t acknowledged that fact. Instead, she speaks as if Hill were somehow responsible for some part of what happened to her — that she erred by taking the photos at all. The logic is not substantively different from arguments that urge women to dress modestly, or to avoid certain bars or neighborhoods, if they want to avoid harassment or assault. It’s terrible, the scold says, but why wasn’t she more careful? Care is not the problem. Care is not a defense against malice. In the second Hill story, there is only one villain, and it’s whoever leaked her photos.

It’s still not clear who did leak them, though Hill has blamed her ex-husband Kenneth Heslep, who she says was abusive. At least one account seems to support this: Though Heslep’s parents told BuzzFeed that he told them he’d been hacked before the photos leaked, the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday that Heslep shopped around his version of his fractious divorce from Hill to a local podcast host, Stephen Daniels of The Talk of Santa Clarita. “It was clear he wanted to air dirty laundry,” Daniels told the Times. Now somebody has, and the Republican Party helped them do it. Red State’s Hill stories, which contained the photos, were published by Jennifer Van Laar — a former operative for Steven Knight, the Republican incumbent the congresswoman defeated last year. And according to the Times, another former Knight aide, talk-radio host Joe Messina, also “received an anonymous email with a Zip file packed with private text messages and nude photos of Hill,” though he didn’t publish them.

There will be other Katie Hills, other women with vengeful ex-partners with blackmail ready to publish, and opportunistic media outlets eager to publish it. When it happens, the story won’t be social media or millennial promiscuity; it’ll be something much older and much more pernicious. Revenge porn is abuse. It’s about power. That’s the only thread linking both Hill stories to each other: how Hill wielded her own power, and how someone else wielded theirs against her. Pelosi doesn’t seem to quite understand how it works.