Updated on Dec. 22.
On Tuesday, former congresswoman Katie Hill (D-Calif.) sued her ex-husband, Kenneth Heslep, along with the owners of Redstate.com and the Daily Mail, saying they had distributed what amounted to “nonconsensual porn.” As NBC News first reported, the 41-page lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress and violation of state law for distribution of intimate personal material without Hill’s consent.
Two weeks ago, Hill won a temporary restraining order against Heslep. Hill accused him of choking and threatening her during years of abuse, as well as leaking nude photos and other information that led to her resignation.
According to NBC, on Dec. 11, three days after Hill obtained the temporary restraining order, the Daily Mail published an article that included a nude picture of Hill taken by Heslep. Hill’s latest lawsuit takes the restraining order a step further by implicating the media outlets that Hill alleges helped her ex-husband destroy her political career.
Hill’s House career had come to an abrupt end in October 2019 during an ethics investigation into her relationship with a congressional staffer. Hill acknowledged that she had a consensual relationship with a campaign staffer but has denied having a relationship with a staffer in her D.C. office. An investigation into the claims was launched after they were first published on the conservative website RedState.
Despite her previous role as a congresswoman, Hill’s story is similar to what many women increasingly face, experts say.
“If you look at the research on image-based sexual abuse, it’s pretty clear that what she experienced is, unfortunately, pretty typical,” said Amy Hasinoff, a University of Colorado media professor who studies digital image abuse. “It’s typically someone who has abused the victim in other ways, and then the image abuse just becomes a part of it.”
Hasinoff believes that a better understanding of domestic violence in general would lead to more people realizing how widespread image abuse is.
“It’s one of the most common and most likely threats to women and trans and nonbinary people. And this is a threat that’s become normalized in a weird way,” she said.
Experts say nonconsensual pornography is on the rise, and with pandemic stay-at-home orders, digital communication and sharing has become more common. But with the sharing of images comes the potential for abuse.
“It only took us one day before we all looked at each other and said, ‘This is going to be bad,’” Annie Seifullah, a victims rights lawyer at C.A. Goldberg, which specializes in digital image violations, told The Washington Post in October, as she and her colleagues braced for a rise in cases.
Even before the world had ever heard of covid-19, such abuse was on the rise. One in 25 — or 4 percent of online Americans — have had sensitive images posted without their permission or been threatened that such photos would be posted, according to a 2016 report by nonprofit research organization Data & Society.
Experts worry that this kind of abuse could have chilling overall effects on society.
The precedent of a media organization publishing intimate images of a sitting U.S. congresswoman — as was done by conservative outlets to Hill — could prevent other women from wanting to run for public office, said Danielle Citron, a leading legal scholar in digital privacy and cyber-harassment.
“It was like a punch in the gut. Already, we’re seeing a culture of violation and impunity where people just think they can get away with it, and it’s normal. It’s like this macho game, for fun, to humiliate women and sexual minorities, and we demean them,” Citron said. “In Katie’s case, what we’re seeing is that women don’t want to go into politics if this is what happens, right?”
“It was the tipping point of the normalization on this culture of violation,” she said.
Even if sensitive images of a woman don’t exist, digitally manipulated images or videos — drafting a woman’s face onto an actress in pornography, for example — are a rising threat, Citron said.
To combat some of these abuses, Citron and her colleague, Mary Anne Franks at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, said they are working with Congress on a bipartisan legislation banning nonconsensual digital imagery, as well as similar legislation on the state level.
Amanda Lenhart, program director for health and data at Data & Society, said that raising awareness can help victims of such abuse.
“As a society, we could take a step back and say, ‘Hey, these people are victims, and we need to understand that and give people a pass for stuff that got shared in trusted, intimate relationships where that trust was broken, right?” Lenhart said. “In some cases, it’s much more coerced and much more horrifying. But in some cases, it’s about broken trust, particularly for younger people who are figuring out relationships.”
To help reform thinking about and rewarding such abuse, Hasinoff said it’s essential to dismantle a system of judging the person whose intimate photos are shared.
“The number one thing that we can be conscious of is to push back against that victim-blaming narrative. Instead of saying, ‘What was she thinking?’ to say, ‘What kind of person would share images without consent? What were they thinking? How could they harm someone so severely without thinking about the impact it would have on that other person?’” Hasinoff said.
She also recommended pushing back against normalizing such abuse.
“If someone shares a photo with you that you think might be private, I think it’s important to say, ‘Hold on a second. Did they say it was okay for you to share that photo?’”