Katie Hill case highlights how revenge porn continues to punish and control women

A political scandal in the United States illustrates how women are still shamed and punished for being the victims of sexual violations – and the media and society compounds these victims’ trauma by becoming complicit.


This week, I had the pleasure of running a consent workshop with teenagers at the Positive Sexual Health Conference & Youth Summit, organised by Youth Work Ireland. I spent two hours talking to teenagers about all different aspects of consent, and was blown away by their nuanced understanding of the dynamics of healthy, empowering relationships. They were passionate about the idea of consent, and eager to learn how to cultivate both sexual and non-sexual relationships where enthusiastic consent was foundational, natural, and clearly communicated.

The teenagers were so thoughtful and engaged that I didn’t need to use most of the dialogue-building exercises I had planned. And my planned speech about consent regarding sexual or nude photographs, and how no-one has the right to share sexual or naked photographs with anyone other than the intended recipient got condensed into a single sentence.

The teens I spoke with already knew this; knew that consent must be enthusiastic, ongoing, mutual, and freely given; knew that if someone consensually sends them a sexual photograph, this does not mean the person is consenting to other people seeing it.

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It seems that many adults have yet to learn this lesson.

The Katie Hill case

Last week in the United States, California congresswoman Katie Hill announced that she was resigning. Hill admitted both she and her husband had been in a relationship with a member of her campaign staff before Hill entered office. In a letter to constituents, Hill wrote "I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment.”

But the relationship is not why Hill resigned. And Hill’s relationship – unprofessional, ethically dubious, and concerning as it may be – is nothing compared to the misogynistic campaign of abuse and violation that is currently being enacted against her.

Hill resigned between nude photographs of Hill were leaked to and published by right-wing media outlets, such as Red State and the Daily Mail. In a statement, Hill has indicated her husband Kenny Heslep was behind the leaking of these naked photographs, and was part of a pattern of abuse that affected both their marriage and current divorce proceedings. (Heslep has denied leaking the photos.)

"I am leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalised on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching."

In a powerful speech in the House of Representatives on Thursday, Hill addressed both the personal abuse she has suffered and the compounding of this trauma by the media.

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“I am leaving because I no longer want to be used as a bargaining chip,” said Hill. “I am leaving because I didn't want to be peddled by papers and blogs and websites, used by shameless operatives for the dirtiest gutter politics that I've ever seen, and the right-wing media to drive clicks and expand their audience by distributing intimate photos of me taken without my knowledge, let alone my consent, for the sexual entertainment of millions.

"I am leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalised on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.”

Hill didn’t resign because she is the subject of an investigation. Hill resigned because she is being abused by a person who leaked naked photos without her consent, and abused by a society who supported and compounded this trauma by publishing the photos and looking at them.

Hill resigned because she wanted the abuse to stop.

Revenge porn 

The non-consensual leaking or sharing of nude or sexual images is a form of abuse that is frequently referred to as “revenge porn” – a deeply problematic term. Porn is a form of sexual media created by consenting parties. Revenge indicates a somewhat justifiable reaction to being wronged. The phrase “revenge porn” is thus itself blaming, implying that the victims’ own actions are to blame for their violation.

Revenge porn is a gesture of control, humiliation and blame, punishing women for being sexual.

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Victims of so-called revenge form are primarily women, but the misogyny that fuels this form of violation and humiliation can be compounded by other prejudices such as biphobia, homophobia, transphobia and racism.

Biphobia, in particular, fuelled the offensive coverage of Hill, with right-wing outlets focusing both on the naked photographs and Hill’s relationship with a woman. Straight cis men are rarely affected by the social judgement that accompanies evidence of their body or sexuality, and making it a largely patriarchal form of punishment. Revenge porn is a gesture of control, humiliation and blame, punishing women for being sexual.

And it works.

Despite increasing discourse around consent and gender equality, society still judges and punishes women for being sexual. Social discourse still instructs women not to send nude photographs, instead of instructing men not to violate their trust.

We accept that most adults are sexual, that sharing sexual photographs is one way to connect with a partner – and yet when photos are leaked, the blame lies not with the abuser who violated their partner’s consent, but the person in the photograph. You should have cropped your face out. You shouldn’t have taken the photos. You should have been a less sexual person. You deserve this.

Punishing victims

Society becomes an active participant in not blaming victims, but punishing them. When nude images of famous people are leaked, the social reaction is often gleeful judgement, shaming – and complicity. People flock to search out the photos, to share them, to mock the victims online.

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Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, leaked without her permission, is still a running joke used to shame her, not to discuss how she was a victim. When hundreds of actresses and singers had their private photographs leaked in 2014, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to their computers to search out the images, feeling entitled to see these women’s naked bodies. The trend of paparazzi “upskirt” photos of celebrities published by media outlets in 2000s only prevailed because these invasive, abusive photographs sold magazines.

Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, leaked without her permission, is still a running joke used to shame her, not to discuss how she was a victim.

By still inflicting this violation, trauma and shame on victims of revenge porn, we are ensuring that any woman who has ever shared a naked photo will have to live in fear of them being leaked. By allowing naked photos to be used to shame women and push them out professions, we are ensuring that many young women will never even try to run for public office, because they are justifiably scared. Revenge porn doesn’t just inflict fear and control when photos are leaked; it contributes to the fear and control that governs women’s daily lives.

It takes one individual to leak a photograph. But it takes a misogynistic society to compound this trauma, to spread the violation, to inflict shame and punishment.

Rape culture

The Katie Hill case not only illustrates how rape culture polices and punishes women, but the hypocrisy regarding gender and sexual violations. None of the conservatives who have spent the past two years crying that #MeToo has “gone too far” and who have defended rapists and abusers have come to Hill’s defence over her relationship with a subordinate.

The articles were focused on exposing, objectifying, and humiliating Hill for being bisexual, sexually active, and for having a body.

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The articles by the Daily Mail and Red State her not focused with the nature of consent, power dynamics and ethics between Hill’s relationship with a staffer. They were focused on exposing, objectifying, and humiliating Hill for being bisexual, sexually active, and for having a body. They were focused on shaming Hill for being a woman.

The larger hypocrisy is, of course, that Hill has been forced out of politics for being a victim of a sexual violation, while men accused of sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse, and remain in power. Hill addressed this hypocrisy in her speech, stating “I’m leaving, but we have men who have been credibly accused of intentional acts of sexual violence and remain in boardrooms, on the Supreme Court, in this very body and worst of all, in the Oval Office.”

Men who have been accused of sexual abuse are still in power. Katie Hill has had her power stripped of her because she is a victim of sexual abuse.

A misogynistic culture is the cause of both. That’s our naked, shameful truth.

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