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Revenge porn, biphobia, and alleged relationships with staffers: The complicated story around Rep. Katie Hill, explained

The first-term Democrat is resigning after being accused of improper relationships, and says nude photos of her were leaked without her consent.

Representative Katie Hill, seen in profile, speaking into a microphone on a podium.
Rep. Katie Hill speaks during her election night watch party at the Canyon in Santa Clarita, California, on November 6, 2018.
Hans Gutknecht/Digital First Media/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Rep. Katie Hill, a first-term Democrat from California, has announced her resignation after being accused of having sexual relationships with staffers.

The story is a complicated one. The allegations first surfaced on RedState, a conservative website known for its devotion to President Trump. Earlier this month, the site reported that Hill and her husband had, until recently, been involved in a sexual relationship with a staffer in her 20s who worked on Hill’s campaign. The story included explicit images purporting to be of Hill and the staffer.

Then, last week, the site published what it said were text messages between Hill’s husband, Kenny Heslep, and the staffer that suggest the staffer was abused in the relationship.

Meanwhile, RedState has also reported that Hill was having an affair with her legislative director, Graham Kelly.

Hill has denied having a sexual relationship with Kelly but, last week, she admitted to having a relationship with the campaign staffer.

And on Sunday, Hill announced her resignation. “This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but I believe it is the best thing for my constituents, my community, and our country,” she said in a statement.

But ever since the allegations came to light, Hill has emphasized that the images published by RedState were released without her consent. She has also implied that Heslep, with whom she is in divorce proceedings, might be responsible.

“The fact is I am going through a divorce from an abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me,” Hill said in a statement to the Washington Post earlier this month.

The allegations against Hill are serious. As the Washington Post notes, it is against the code of conduct adopted by Congress last year for legislators to engage in sexual relationships with their staff. Prior to her resignation, the House Ethics Committee had announced an investigation into the allegation of her relationship with Kelly.

The code of conduct does not cover campaign staff, but many advocates say there’s a fundamental problem with an employer having a sexual relationship with an employee. There are “inherent power dynamics involved with superiors and their subordinates, which makes the issue of consent difficult,” Ally Coll, co-founder of the anti-sexual harassment organization the Purple Campaign, told Vox.

The texts hinting at abuse make the allegation even more troubling. At the same time, if Hill is correct, the allegations may have emerged as part of what was essentially an act of revenge porn: It is illegal in California, Washington, DC, and elsewhere to try to hurt someone by distributing naked photographs of that person without consent. Meanwhile, the fact that Hill is one of the first openly bisexual members of Congress may be contributing to the way the allegations have been portrayed. RedState’s headlines, for example, appeared to stoke salacious interest in the story by referring to Hill’s alleged “2-Yr Throuple Relationship.”

Hill is not the first woman to be accused of sexual misconduct or inappropriate relationships in recent years, and the allegations are the latest reminder that such misconduct is not only the province of powerful men. However, they’re also a reminder that the gender and sexual orientation of the person accused have an effect on how allegations come to light and how the media responds.

Hill had a sexual relationship with a campaign staffer. She is also accused of a relationship with a congressional staffer, which she denies.

Hill, 32, beat Republican incumbent Steve Knight in 2018 to represent California’s 25th Congressional District, which spans parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. She was part of a congressional class that included a record-breaking number of women, as well as a number of historic firsts. As reporter Michelle Ye Hee Lee noted at the Post, she is also one of the first openly bisexual people to serve in Congress.

Prior to the allegations, Hill was “considered a rising star among the Democrats,” Lee writes, and was one of the “Big Six” first-term members of Congress to serve in major leadership roles. But Hill began faced scrutiny earlier this month, when RedState reported that she and her husband had been involved in a relationship with a female campaign staffer, beginning in 2017 and ending after Hill moved to Washington in 2019.

The site posted photos it said depicted the women together, with the face of the staffer, who was not named, blurred out. In one of the images, a woman identified by RedState as Hill is nude.

In a follow-up story, RedState published texts purportedly between the staffer and Hill’s husband, Heslep, alluding to abusive behavior in the relationship.

“It was a dark time and you treated me really poorly but I also stayed which I have to own,” one of the texts, purportedly from the staffer to Heslep, reads.

According to RedState, Heslep replied, “Don’t take full responsibility for staying with people that are abusing you. That is basically victim blaming, and none of it was your fault.”

In one text to the staffer, Heslep referred to “katies abuse,” according to RedState. And in another, the staffer referred to a hobby she enjoyed, according to the website: “She can ruin politics, take all my friends, and isolate me, but she can’t have [this].”

Meanwhile, RedState also reported that Hill had been involved in a year-long affair with her congressional legislative director, Kelly, which caused her husband to file for divorce.

Hill has not responded to a request for comment from Vox, but she said in a statement to the Post that “allegations that I have been involved in a relationship with Mr. Kelly are absolutely false.

“I am saddened that the deeply personal matter of my divorce has been brought into public view and the vindictive claims of my ex have now involved the lives and reputations of unrelated parties,” the statement continued.

Then, in a separate statement to constituents on Wednesday, Hill acknowledged a relationship with the female campaign staffer.

“During the final tumultuous years of my abusive marriage, I became involved in a relationship with someone on my campaign,” she said in a statement, according to CNN. “I know that even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate, but I still allowed it to happen despite my better judgment.”

Hill also apologized, adding, “I wish nothing but the best for her and hope everyone respects her privacy in this difficult time.”

However, she also decried the manner in which the relationship came to light. “Distributing intimate photos with the intent to publish them is a crime, and the perpetrator should be punished to the full extent of the law,” she said, adding that she had notified Capitol police about the leak of the photos.

Under Washington’s “revenge porn” law, enacted in 2014, it’s illegal to try to harm someone by disseminating nude photographs of that person without consent, and perpetrators can face up to three years in prison. Such laws, now on the books in more than 30 states, are a response to a very real problem: According to one 2016 study, one in 25 Americans has been a victim of “revenge porn.” (Heslep did not respond to the Post’s request for comment.)

In announcing her resignation on Sunday, Hill added that she would work to stop revenge porn after leaving office. “My fight is going to be to defeat this type of exploitation that so many women are victims to and which will keep countless women and girls from running for office,” she said.

The allegations are serious. They’re not necessarily being treated seriously.

Regardless of how the allegations came about, they had serious implications for Hill from the beginning.

Last year, the House adopted new ethics rules barring members from having sexual relationships with staffers. The rules don’t explicitly apply to campaign staffers like the one involved in a previous relationship with Hill and Heslep, but, Lee reports, the House Ethics Committee has determined it has jurisdiction over “misconduct relating to a successful campaign for election to the House.”

In general, “it is best practice for organizations to prohibit romantic relationships within either a direct or indirect reporting relationship,” said Coll, who co-founded the Purple Campaign after speaking out about her own experience being groped by a senator when she was an 18-year-old intern. A relationship with a boss can put pressure on the subordinate to consent, Coll said, as well as creating an “appearance of impropriety or favoritism” that affects others in the workplace.

And when the employer is a politician, allegations of sexual misconduct — and how they’re handled — matter to voters, Coll said. “Research shows that more than half of voters say that they would not vote for somebody who is accused of sexual harassment, or, more importantly, somebody who did not make addressing sexual harassment a priority,” she explained. “People, myself included, want to see lawmakers lead by example, and I think that starts with taking responsibility for their own offices and their own campaigns.”

Even before the allegations became public, Hill was expected to have a difficult reelection campaign in 2020, according to the New York Times.

The allegations against Hill came after multiple members of Congress, including Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), have resigned amid accusations of sexual misconduct. The ethics rules last year were part of a broader reckoning with that reality, which also included legislation to make it easier for staffers to report misconduct.

While the only members of Congress to resign after allegations have been men, Hill is not the first powerful woman to face such allegations in recent years. California State Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, for instance, was accused last year of groping a male staffer. An investigation failed to corroborate the claims but found that she had used vulgar language, and Garcia, who had been honored as a “silence breaker” in the Me Too movement by Time magazine, was removed from her committee memberships.

Meanwhile, the fact that Hill is bisexual and a woman may have impacted the way the allegations against her have been covered and received by the public. The headlines and stories on RedState focused on her sexual orientation and relationship status, with headlines including “Bisexual Rep. Katie Hill Allegedly Left Her Husband For Her (Male) Finance Director” and CA Rep. Katie Hill Allegedly Involved Female Staffer In 2-Yr ‘Throuple’ Relationship.”

Other conservative outlets are leaning hard on the “throuple” angle, with the Washington Examiner titling a story “Swing district: Katie Hill 2020 rivals seize on leaked naked ‘throuple’ photo as campaign issue,” and Fox News reporting, “Rep. Katie Hill fights back amid claims she was involved in romantic ‘throuple’ with staffer.”

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail published additional photos purportedly of Hill last week, touting “a series of shocking photographs obtained exclusively by” and accusing Hill of “posing nude on ‘wife-sharing’ sites.”

And among ordinary internet users, “throuple” was the top Google search term linked to Hill’s name last week, with “photos” and “uncensored” close behind, indicating that people were searching for the story in the hope of seeing Hill naked. This is, to put it mildly, not how the allegations against Sen. Franken were received.

All told, the story of Hill and her relationships with staff — alleged and confirmed — is disturbing in a number of ways, from the very real abuses of power of which she is accused to the way those accusations are being conflated with Hill’s sexuality and a salacious desire for nude photos of her. It’s a reminder both that men aren’t the only ones who can engage in sexual misconduct and that coverage of the issue is just as vulnerable to sexism, homophobia, and biphobia as any other topic.