EDITORIAL: Taking revenge porn seriously

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Jan. 28—It is beyond belief that a state as progressive as Massachusetts does not have a law against "revenge porn." Yet here was Gov. Charlie Baker, in his last State of the State address Tuesday night, practically begging the Legislature to act on the issue.

"Massachusetts is one of only two states that doesn't treat this as a crime," Baker said. "Forty eight other states treat this as a crime. Because it is a crime!"

Baker is right, and it's shameful the state has been slow to act. Somehow, Massachusetts remains one of only two states — the other is South Carolina — that lack criminal sanctions for posting sexually explicit material without someone's permission.

Revenge porn — where adults post sexually explicit images of a former spouse or ex-partner on the internet to harass or embarrass them — is becoming increasingly common across the country. One in 25 Americans has had nude or nearly nude images posted without their permission, or have been threatened with posting, according to the Center for Innovative Health Research.

Those numbers may be growing during the pandemic, say those who help victims of sexual and domestic violence.

"Abusers are going to abuse"whether there's a pandemic or not, Annie Seifullah of a New York-based victims rights law firm told The Washington Post at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. "And abusers with time on their hands and nothing to lose, oftentimes they are the hardest to defeat and the hardest to escape."

Seifullah said modern domestic violence and "tech abuse" often go hand-in-hand.

"The Venn diagram overlaps almost completely," she said. "Shortly after quarantine, (women) started getting threats from the abuser: If they didn't reconcile or get back together, the abuser would show their intimate photos to their job," Seifullah said. "And her job is her only lifeline, the only thing providing her with freedom and safety."

Baker heard similar stories last December, when he took part in a roundtable on the South Shore where victims of revenge porn shared their stories, including a woman whose ex-partner had taken dozens of lewd pictures of her and posted them on the internet.

"A lifetime of relationships, a small business she owned, a basic sense of privacy we all take for granted, were shattered by one man's despicable actions," he said. "These women had the courage to come forward and publicly tell their stories. They deserve to be heard."

Baker's bill would create a new felony offense for individuals charged with distributing a sexually explicit image "for purposes of revenge or embarrassment. Violators could face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000." Importantly, it also gives judges the authority to ensure explicit images are destroyed.

"Hopefully a bill like this would serve as a deterrent," said Sara Stanley, executive director of Salem-based HAWC, adding the use of explicit images for revenge is "certainly a devastating event when it does happen."

Baker's bill is actually a refile of proposed legislation from 2019. That the Legislature hasn't acted in that time is puzzling, to put it kindly.

"Current law is clearly not working," Baker said Tuesday. "These women were bothered, battered, bruised and beaten time and time again by their abusers, and nothing changed. It would be impossible to listen to their stories and walk away believing the commonwealth is serious about protecting these women."

Lawmakers can start showing they are serious by closing the revenge porn loophole.

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