How Katie Hill Is Making Her Comeback

Katie Hill understands the ups and downs of advocacy work. Prior to becoming a U.S. congresswoman representing California’s 25th congressional district in Jan. 2019, she worked in homeless services for over a decade. “I learned how to compartmentalize, because you’re up against the same kind of battle, where you see more losses than victories,” Hill tells Refinery29. 
“Now I’m back in a similar position, I guess.” 
Hill has been the subject of controversy since leaving office in November 2019. She resigned in the midst of an ethics investigation after allegations of a relationship with a campaign worker came to light, and a series of nude photographs of Hill were leaked by her ex-husband to The Daily Mail and right-wing blog RedState. But what appeared to be a clear-cut case of revenge porn and cyber exploitation — for which Hill later filed lawsuits against her ex, Kenny Heslep, The Daily Mail, Salem Media Group Inc., and RedState deputy managing editor Jennifer Van Laar, among others — eventually became a battle for the rights for others who have faced similar online abuse. The case came to a head on April 7, when a judge dismissed the suit against The Daily Mail, arguing the photographs were a “matter of public issue or public interest.” 
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“We always knew it was an uphill battle, but, honestly, to me, it’s just so clear that there’s a difference between free speech and the public’s concern that is the information, and the pictures themselves,” Hill says. “So yeah, I was pretty crushed. I kind of hid for a day or two. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain: You just feel like you want to give up. But also, you’re like, ‘I don’t want to quit because I don’t want to say that this is all for nothing.’”
Now, Hill and her lawyer Carrie A. Goldberg are left with the question of what’s next. There is the option to appeal the ruling — which Goldberg hinted at in a series of tweets after the judge’s dismissal. But Hill is beginning to question if she has any legal recourse, especially when there is no federal law prohibiting revenge porn. They could file against The Daily Mail in the U.K. as well, Hill says, but that is another complicated avenue.
But perhaps what worries Hill the most is the ripple effect this might have on women running for office in the future. If revenge porn is considered “public interest” when you are a public figure — especially a woman in office — Hill thinks that many women may avoid running altogether.
“If you go to young women who say they want to run for office and ask them, ‘Have you ever sent a nude selfie, or have you ever sexted before, or has anyone ever taken pictures of you?’ chances are, if they’re younger, they’re going to say yes,” she says. “That’s just how it is. And then you say, ‘Well, did you know that if someone wants to resurface those, or if an ex is mad, or if someone gets their hands on it somehow, that they can publish that and use it against you?’ How many of them do you think are going to say, ‘Well, fuck that’?” 
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Hill is now setting her sights on changing the law to make revenge porn a federal crime — a goal that existed long before she became the victim of cyber exploitation herself. While in Congress, she was a co-sponsor of the SHIELD Act, a bipartisan bill that would “establish federal criminal liability for individuals who share private, sexually explicit, or nude images without consent.” The bill was introduced in the House by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Congressman John Katko (R-NY), then later reintroduced in the Senate by then-Senator Kamala Harris. But like most bills, regardless of their importance, it stalled. 
“Once [cyber exploitation] happened to me, one of the first things I did was start urging my colleagues to sign onto it and put it for the next Congress,” Hill says. “But I knew that the best chance that we would have is to make it part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization, especially because of Biden; it’s one of his signature things.” 
Eventually, the amendment was included, and on March 17, 2021, the House approved reauthorization of VAWA with the support of 33 Republicans. Currently, VAWA is sitting in the Senate, where Hill says it will face the toughest hurdle yet. 
“They’re going to make it a gun issue because of the boyfriend loophole,” Hill says. “And that’s just disgusting.” 
Of course, there’s also the Senate filibuster to consider — an issue Hill says is a continued barrier to passing meaningful legislation. 
“In the past, I had said that I was concerned about getting rid of the filibuster altogether because one day we will be in the minority again and that scares me,” Hill says. “But the truth is, the Republicans are gonna do what they’re gonna do whenever they want to. So if they take the majority, let’s not kid ourselves: They’ll probably get rid of the filibuster on day one. They’ve shown that they’re completely willing to be hypocrites on anything, and that won’t be any different.” 
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It’s not just the GOP’s hypocrisy concerning the filibuster, or how much power they now claim to believe the majority party should have, that disgusts Hill. After multiple people confirmed that Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is currently under federal investigation for violating sex trafficking laws, had shared naked photos and videos of women with his colleagues, sometimes on the House floor, Hill says she felt sick. That night, she sat down and wrote an op-ed for Vanity Fair calling for Gaetz to resign
“I just needed to say something,” she says. “I had a lot of people say, ‘You shouldn’t say anything because it draws attention to the fact that you’ve defended him before,’ or ‘It’s associating yourself with him.’ From a PR strategy viewpoint, it wasn’t a traditionally agreeable one. But I just felt like I had to.” 
Hill also takes issue with the “unnamed sources” who confirmed to CNN that Gaetz shared photographs with them — people who had knowledge of the alleged incidents for years and never reported Gaetz to the ethics committee, much less spoke out sans the protection of anonymity. 
“They probably laughed at it or said, ‘Nice job, man,’ or whatever it was,” she says. “Even if they just walked away, they are still complicit because they never came forward about it. Instead, they cowardly reported it to CNN or whatever without using their names, and I think that’s just the biggest bunch of bullshit.”
Gaetz says he will not resign, and so far only one sitting Republican lawmaker has called for him to step down. And while the hypocrisy and double standards are far from surprising, they do leave Hill, at times, questioning if her decision to resign was the right one. 
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“I have definitely had times when I feel like I regretted it, especially when my seat went to a Republican and especially when he was one of the GOP members seen with and photographed with insurrectionists and voted to overturn the election,” she explains. “That was when I was like, ‘God, did I make the wrong call?’ But at the end of the day, I think it was very much the right call for me and I think that I’ve really taken the approach of: I can’t go back.” 
While Hill considers the devastating ramifications of allowing these rulings to stand and contemplates her next steps, she’s not only leaning on her family, friends, and partner for support, but also finding encouragement in the numerous online messages she receives every day. 
“I get DMs from people who are saying, ‘Keep it up,’” Hill says. “Obviously I get a lot of nasty ones, too. But I’ll have ones where people say they wouldn’t want to post this publicly, but they’ve been the victim of some kind of cyber exploitation and they’re just so grateful that I’m doing this. [They’ll share that] they haven’t ever wanted to come forward, or that they had to move because of it… all kinds of horrible things. That’s affirmation that I should keep going and that it’s a worthwhile cause.” 
Looking back, Hill says that although there were no calls for her to resign from her own party members, she wishes the Democratic Party had been more vocal and public in supporting her. According to her, she was told at the time that there were more photos — photos she did not know about — and if she remained in office, they would systematically be released. The threat alone put her in a dark place, she said, and there would have been no way for her to continue to serve at the capacity her constituents, her staff, and her colleagues deserved given her mental health.
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“You see this over and over with victims of revenge porn or victims of any kind of cyber exploitation,” she says. “It brings you to a horrible place.” 
While Hill isn’t out of that horrible place entirely, she’s working on giving herself grace during the downs (“When I was feeling a certain way because of the lawsuit, I gave myself permission to feel that way and to not feel bad that I wasn’t being productive and that’s something that I had to learn.”) and maintaining hope that eventually she will experience a “win,” not only for herself but for other victims of revenge porn, many of whom do not have the finances, support systems, and bandwidth to take on a legal case — much less work to change the law. 
“I do feel a responsibility around it — that I am willing and able to take on what not very many people are able to,” she says. “And maybe one day, I will end up back in the political sphere. But right now, I know that my best chance is helping other women do that and then advocating for the issues that I can.” 

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