Interpretation of the news based on evidence, including data, as well as anticipating how events might unfold based on past events

Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), 32, is one of the youngest female members of Congress and the first-ever openly bisexual member of the House. She arrived in Washington in January, part of a historic wave of women, winning a longtime Republican seat.

Hill resigned on Sunday after a series of nude photos, published online without her consent, led her to disclose a romantic relationship with a former campaign staffer. In the days since, people have asked: If Hill was a middle-aged man — and not the woman behind “the most millennial campaign ever” — would she still be in Congress?

I posed that question to Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who specializes in sexual privacy violations and is the author of “Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls.” Goldberg has decades of experience working with women — and it is overwhelmingly women — who are victims of revenge porn, which is defined as sexually explicit photos of someone shared online without their consent. The images often come from a former partner “hell-bent on their destruction,” Goldberg says, as looks likely in Hill’s case.

Attorney Carrie Goldberg poses for a portrait at the offices of her company on 16 Court Street in Brooklyn, Wednesday, January 30, 2019. (Photo Credit: Natan Dvir)
Attorney Carrie Goldberg poses for a portrait at the offices of her company on 16 Court Street in Brooklyn, Wednesday, January 30, 2019. (Photo Credit: Natan Dvir)

Hill’s photos were originally published in mid-October by the conservative website Red State. They originated, Hill says, with her abusive husband, who shared them with various GOP operatives and right-wing media platforms. (Hill is going through a divorce.)

Along with the photos, Red State surfaced allegations that Hill had affairs with two different current and former staffers: a campaign aide, which Hill has confirmed, and her current legislative director, which Hill has denied. Last week the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into Hill’s alleged relationship with the congressional staffer. Under new House rules, implemented in the wake of #MeToo, representatives are prohibited from engaging in romantic relationships with employees. When Hill announced her resignation, she became the first member of Congress to lose her seat because of the #MeToo rules.

Today’s members of Congress are increasingly aware of the damaging power dynamic that emerges when a boss gets involved with a staffer. That seems like a progress. But something about this particular resignation, many have noted, makes it hard to celebrate.

That’s because it’s a clear triumph of revenge porn, says Goldberg. It is a crime to share sexual images without someone’s consent — but in this case, she says, the people who circulated the revenge porn are getting exactly what they want. For the right-wing media, that’s forcing a rising young Democratic star out of office. For Hill’s husband, it’s punishing an ex.

I spoke to Goldberg about the dynamics of revenge porn, and why it’s so much more likely to happen to women than men.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Kitchener: Whoever sent these photos to Red State — were they breaking the law?

Carrie Goldberg: Absolutely. In the last five years, we’ve gone from having three states with criminal non-consensual porn laws to having 46 states, plus D.C. These laws apply to situations where naked images or videos are disseminated online or offline without the subject’s permission. A lot of the laws do have an exception for newsworthiness. But the sexual humiliation of a person, even a public figure or celebrity, should never be newsworthy.

CK: What counts as an exception for newsworthiness?

CG: The newsworthy exception derives from the idea that there are certain images that are so powerful — images from the Holocaust, from the Vietnam War. We’re talking about images where the image itself is newsworthy, the nudity is not.

CK: Some people might say that because the photos showed Hill in an intimate relationship with a campaign staffer, or smoking marijuana, they are newsworthy. How would you respond to that?

CG: Representative Hill created that image within the confines of an intimate relationship, and the malicious spread of it, in my opinion, serves the primary purpose of sexually humiliating her, with the goal of running her out of office. In Hill’s case, nobody has come out as a victim. No one has said that she coerced or violated them in any way. That is a big contrast to many of the cases that have been lodged against men, who remain in office.

CK: Is this a tactic that you see from a lot of aggrieved former partners?

CG: Absolutely. Naked pictures are used as a weapon, and it’s because of situations like this. Often the goal, as it was here, is to topple the victim’s hard-earned career. Because that has the most devastating and long-term effects.

CK: Why is that so often the goal?

CG: It’s so hard to recover. Seizing upon something that is usually very precious to a person — so many of us have been working for years to get to where we are. Hill campaigned for a year and a half, she raised millions of dollars. But the husband’s idea is, “Okay, well, you can leave me, but don’t think your life is going to just go on as it is.” This is about punishing a woman for leaving a relationship. And then finding media and a very receptive far right to amplify that.

CK: What is it about naked pictures that makes them so destructive?

CG: So much gossip germinates from a naked picture. For victims, it’s the powerlessness of not knowing where the images are, who has seen them, if people are gossiping about them and, if they are, what they are saying. These images are created in private, for an intimate partner. They are not created for our boss or for our clients to see. But because of the nebulousness of the Internet, you never really know where the photos are, once they’re out.

CK: Was Red State breaking the law when they published these photos?

CG: You hear a lot about section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which usually shelters platforms from liability for content that individual users post. However, if the platform itself is making the decision to publish naked pictures, as Red State did here, they don’t benefit from that immunity. And therefore, the platform should be held liable.

CK: So is there a case for Hill going after Red State?

CG: Without giving legal advice, I would say, hell yes.

CK: Katie Hill is one of the youngest women in Congress. When I interviewed her, we spoke about how she’d sometimes walk into a room and the people she was meeting with wouldn’t realize that she was the congressperson. I’m wondering how you think an incident like this might impact her differently than, say, a more senior congressman?

CG: She is building her reputation. Because she is young — and young-looking — she is having to earn her place. She is already coming from a deficit, having to overcompensate, fighting against preconceived opinions of her being too inexperienced to handle the job. So certainly this would have a bigger impact on someone of her demographic than a middle-aged white man.

Katie Hill was taken down by three things: an abusive ex, a misogynist far-right media apparatus, and a society that was gleeful about sexually humiliating a young woman in power. None of those elements would be here if it were a male victim. It is because she is female that this happened.

CK: Do you see this kind of thing happening more to women than to men?

CG: Yes. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative found that 90 percent of victims [of revenge porn] are women.

CK: Wow. Why is that?

CG: One of the main differences is the downstream harassment that women face by the consumers of revenge porn — the people who find this content online — who often seek them out and threaten and harass them. Women are just so much more available for slut-shaming and victim-blaming. They face the terror and the fear and the gossip in a way that men generally just don’t.

We’re also simply not as interested in nudes of men. They can’t be weaponized in the same way.

CK: Were you surprised when Hill resigned?

CG: I was distressed. But when she explained that it was because she was scared of what her abusive ex might do next, it made sense to me. Who knows what kind of fear she’s experiencing. Aside from the humiliation, being made into a national spectacle, she’s still dealing with somebody who is hell-bent on her destruction.

CK: One GOP operative in Hill’s district said he has “received over 700 images, pictures, texts, and notes on the escapades of one Katie Hill.” I wonder if that sheer volume of material, and the threat that more could be released, could be part of why Hill is resigning.

CG: Absolutely, it could. The threat of spreading naked images is frequently used to force women to stay in abusive relationships or to coerce them into having sex — or, in this case, coercing them out of their job.

CK: What legal options does Hill have now?

CG: Nothing is going to undo the humiliation that she has experienced. There is no search engine optimization that is going to erase this from the Internet or people’s memories.

But she does have legal options ... reporting it as a crime, which could apply not just to her abusive ex but also to the publications that posted it. Then she also has civil remedies. California does have a very strong civil law, so she could be holding her ex liable for damages. And in this case, they would be substantial.

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