News Law and Policy

Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee Passes ‘Revenge Porn’ Bill

Tara Murtha

Introduced by the co-chair of the General Assembly’s newly unveiled Women's Health Caucus, the bill frames revenge porn as a form of intimate partner harassment.

The Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill Tuesday banning “revenge porn,” the Patriot-News reports.

The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), co-chair of the General Assembly’s newly unveiled Women’s Health Caucus, which introduced several measures at a press conference last month.

Sen. Schwank has called revenge porn “a new form of abuse.”

“This is a growing problem around the country that has caused serious problems for its victims,” Schwank said in a statement. “We need to stop it, and to do that, we need to make sure Pennsylvania officials have the tools to prosecute it.”

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Revenge porn is most often described as the posting of a photograph of another person who is naked or engaged in a sexual act without their approval. The photos are often posted alongside personal information. Sometimes retaliation by a bitter ex is at play. Other times, victims are exposed and humiliated on the Internet after they took photos of themselves and their computers or online accounts were hacked, as was the case with the 24-year-old daughter of anti-revenge porn activist Charlotte Laws.

However the image is obtained, the results can be devastating. According to a survey conducted by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), an anti-revenge porn advocacy group, 93 percent of victims say they have experienced “significant emotional distress,” and 49 percent say they have been stalked or harassed by people who saw their images. The group notes that 90 percent of revenge porn victims are women.

States have been struggling with how best to address revenge porn. New Jersey criminalized revenge porn by expanding its invasion of privacy statute to apply to someone who, though “not licensed or privileged to do so,” “photographs, films, videotapes, records, or otherwise reproduces in any manner, the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact, without that person’s consent and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would not expect to be observed.”

Dharun Ravi, the man who secretly recorded Rutgers student Tyler Clementi engaging in sexual activity shortly before Clementi committed suicide, was successfully prosecuted under the law.

California passed revenge porn legislation last October. The state took a different approach. From the bill language:

This bill would provide that any person who photographs or records by any means the image of the intimate body part or parts of another identifiable person, under circumstances where the parties agree or understand that the image shall remain private, and the person subsequently distributes the image taken, with the intent to cause serious emotional distress, and the depicted person suffers serious emotional distress, is guilty of disorderly conduct and subject to that same punishment.

Critics quickly noted that the California law only covers photographs taken by the person who posts the image; it doesn’t apply if the person depicted in the photo snapped a self-portrait and shared it—a common source of such images.

Pennsylvania’s bill frames revenge porn as a form of intimate partner harassment:

A person commits the crime of intimate partner harassment by exposing a photograph, film, videotape or similar recording of the identifiable image of an intimate partner who is nude or explicitly engaged in a sexual act to the view of a third party for no legitimate purpose and with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm the person depicted.

Advocates are concerned that the “intent” language would make it difficult to prosecute perpetrators. “While our statistics show that most victims experience harassment and emotional distress, the perpetrators of revenge porn don’t always post this material with that intent,” CCRI founder Holly Jacobs, who was a victim of revenge porn in 2009, told Rewire. “Some of them post it in order to make money or just to share their conquests with the world.”

Maryland, Wisconsin, and New York are considering similar legislation.

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