Photo of Katie Hill by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons Photo of Katie Hill by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of California Rep. Katie Hill’s resignation last week, New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski and 34 other House Democrats called for Congress to take up legislation that would make sharing sexually explicit photos without consent a federal crime.

In a letter urging the U.S. House Judiciary Committee to consider H.R. 2896, also known as the Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution Act of 2019 (or the SHIELD Act), lawmakers point out that while they don’t “condone inappropriate sexual relationships with subordinates, we cannot ignore that Congresswoman Hill was also a victim of what is colloquially termed ‘revenge porn.’”

“Revenge porn,” or nonconsensual pornography (NCP), is defined as the distribution of private, intimate images without the consent of the person pictured. Photos may be created consensually—for example, when romantic partners share images with one another—or nonconsensually, such as when someone is secretly tapes or photographed. 

“This abuse, especially when weaponized on the internet, can destroy a person’s life with the click of a button,” the Democratic lawmakers write. 

Hill, a freshman Democrat representing California’s 25th district, announced on Oct. 27 she was planning to step down after rumors started swirling that she had a romantic relationship with a member of her staff. Those allegations arose after her husband, whom she’s divorcing, reportedly released sexually explicit pictures of her and a staffer. At least two publications shared the images on their websites. 

“I’m leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching,” Hill said during her resignation speech before Congress on Thursday.

In an effort to protect people from being exploited in similar ways, Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and John Katko (R-NY) introduced the SHIELD Act earlier this summer. Speier has been working to make it a federally prosecutable to share private, sexually explicit or nude photos without consent since 2016. Though the legislation has bipartisan support, it remains stalled in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

In their letter, Malinowski and others explained the importance of addressing these privacy concerns in Congress. Currently, 46 states have laws against revenge porn. However, the very definition of nonconsensual pornography, as well as the subsequent penalities for such violations, differs state to state. 

“Many [state laws] include unnecessary and confusing requirements that allow many forms of NCP to go unpunished,” the letter states. “In addition, the distribution of NCP through the internet presents jurisdictional challenges. Clear and concise federal regulation can complement and coordinate local efforts to stamp out NCP. A unified federal statute is long overdue.”

According to a 2016 report from the Data & Society Research Institute and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, one in 25 Americans have had their nude or sexually explicit images shared without their permission.

“The SHIELD Act is an important step towards helping victims protect their privacy, get justice, and keep themselves safe from future violations,” the Democrats’ letter concluded. “We urge you to hold a hearing on the damage being done by the widespread scourge of NCP and move this legislation forward.”