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State ‘Sextortion’ Bill Would Criminalize Sexual Coercion

Legislation introduced by State Senators Randy Vulakovich (R- Allegheny County) and Judy Schwank (D- Berks County) would criminalize "sextortion" in Pennsylvania. 

*Warning: This story contains graphic information that some readers may find offensive. 

The FBI definessextortion as "a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money."

Vulakovich and Schwank say that sextortion is on the rise in the digital age because images can exchange hands with or without consent faster than ever before, and because of the ease with which social media and communications accounts can be hacked.

“This is behavior we see affecting people, primarily women, at all levels of society,” Schwank said in a press release. “It is a demeaning experience that no one should have to go through to get housing, employment or just to live their lives. This has been tolerated for too long. We need to treat it like the crime it is.”

Most sextortion victims are women and children. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reportsa 150 percent increase in sextortion calls to their tipline between 2014 and 2016. 

The Daily Beast detailsexamples of what sextortion can look like: "A little girl who is threatened that her dog will be killed if she doesn’t send a naked picture. Forced sibling sex, involving 7- and 8-year-olds, along with bestiality. The 12-year-old girl who got a computer for Christmas then fell into a conversation with a predator who told her he was remotely controlling the device and could explode it like a bomb if she did not take her top off."

Sextortion is also similar to revenge porn, in which a person's former sexual partner releases or threatens to release sexual images. 

A handful of states-- Alabama, Arkansas, California, Texas and Utah-- have criminalized sextortion, although the FBI does not currently track cases. Thirty-eight states have enacted laws against revenge porn.

A bipartisan bill introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives and cosponsored by seven members last year would also federally criminalize sextortion, along with other typically cyber crimes like doxxing (publishing private information online with malicious intent) and swatting (falsely reporting a crime to emergency services). 

The federal bill would require the FBI to track cyber crimes and train FBI and DOJ officials to investigate them. The bill is pending in the House Judiciary Subcommittes on Constitution and Civil Justice and on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. 

The Pennsylvania bill is similar. It would treat sextortion like sexual assault, and assign fines or "any number of years" or life in prison to those found guilty of it. The bill would also assign fines or up to five years in prison to persons found guilty in transmitting communication of sextortion. 

Vulakovich and Schwank note that legislation must catch up with the innumerable ways that technology can be abused. 

“As a former police officer, I have seen this inexcusable and exploitive behavior proliferate and this legislation would ban the cruel practice – the victims are often unable to recover from the stigma and the psychological repercussions for the rest of their lives,” Vulakovich said in a press release. “I believe we need to create stronger punishments so Pennsylvanians know this conduct will not be tolerated.”

The FBI says that many victims of sextortion, especially minors, feel too shameful to report the crime. The FBI recommends several ways to safeguard against sextortion, such as never sending compromising images to anyone, never opening message attachments from strangers, and turning off or covering web cameras. 

Victims of sextortion or those around them can call 1-800-CALL-FBI to report it. 

Adelina Lancianese is the assistant producer for the NPR Story Lab, a creative studio that fosters newsroom experimentation and incubates new podcasts. At the Story Lab, Lancianese works primarily on investigative, long-form projects, and also helps organize the annual Story Lab Workshop for the development of new independent and Member station podcasts.