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Healey signs bill against revenge porn, making Massachusetts the 49th state to pass such a law.

Healey signs bill against revenge porn, making Massachusetts the 49th state to pass such a law.

Massachusetts became the 49th state to ban revenge porn on Thursday. Governor Maura Healey signed a law that also targets sexual harassment and coercive control by domestic abusers.

The bill closes a legal loophole that prohibits the sharing of sexually explicit images and videos without the consent of the person concerned. It creates a new diversion and education program for youth who engage in sexting. It specifically prohibits artificially generated material that purports to depict a real person in a sexually explicit manner (often referred to as “deepfakes”). It also expands the definition of criminal abuse to include “coercive control.”

Survivors and victims’ rights activists say revenge porn is widespread in the digital age and exposes people – especially women – to social and emotional harm at the hands of their former partners.

Last year, lawmakers tried to crack down on revenge porn, but senators did not give themselves enough time in their late-session initiative to close a loophole in state law that makes prosecuting revenge porn cases nearly impossible. Part of the problem, advocates for reform say, is a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that made it difficult for prosecutors to bring charges unless three or more incidents occurred.

“As a former attorney general and prosecutor, and now as governor, we know there have been gaps in policy in this area,” Governor Maura Healey said at a press conference Thursday before signing the bill.

Katelynn Spencer, an activist and survivor, recounted Thursday how she discovered that sexual videos of her had been posted on porn websites without her consent. The videos, which she did not know one had been recorded, had been online since 2012, she said, although she did not learn about them until 2020.

“It was on many different websites with millions of views. I knew immediately that I wanted justice. But then I realized that there was no law in Massachusetts that protected me,” Spencer said. “Even though I tried to sue my exploiter, my case was dismissed.”

The bill was not enacted until years after it was first presented to Parliament.

“This bill has been in the works for so long, even before I found out I was being exploited,” Spencer said. “Now I can finally say I’m getting justice because this bill will help so many people.”

Spencer and Shaquera Robinson, a domestic violence survivor who founded the Together Rising Against Coercion Coalition and Shaquera’s Story Domestic Violence Consulting and Coaching, held each other and cried after Healey scribbled her name on the law.

This session, new provisions were added to the bill to criminalize coercive control as a form of abuse and to expand revenge pornography laws to include artificial intelligence.

“We also know that this is a new space in terms of AI and what is possible there,” Healey said. “In particular, stories will continue to be told about young people and what is happening in this space.”

“Deepfakes” – AI-generated images or videos that often depict situations, actions or statements that never actually occurred – are increasingly being used to create non-consensual pornographic images, according to the bill’s authors. Advocates warn that this trend is becoming more common among young people creating and sharing synthetic images of other teens.

“We’re dealing with artificial intelligence that is miles ahead of what we legislate,” said Rep. Michael Day, one of the bill’s authors. “And that happens with any technology. What we’ve done in this bill is to put in place concrete prohibitions against deepfake actions that seek to… harm someone by manipulating their image and publishing it, or even try to ruin their life.”

The law also expands the definition of abuse to include coercive measures, which include behavior aimed at restricting the victim’s safety or autonomy.

Coercive control, as defined in the new law, is “a pattern of behavior intended to threaten, intimidate, bully, isolate, control, coerce, or compel a family or household member into submission and that causes that family or household member to have a reasonable fear of physical harm or a diminished sense of physical safety or autonomy.”

This may include deliberately isolating a person from sources of support such as family and friends, depriving them of basic needs, controlling or monitoring their communications, movements and finances, threatening to harm a child or other family member or mistreat an animal in order to coerce a person into doing something, or threatening to release sensitive personal information, including explicit images or videos.

“This is violence that may not be physical in nature, but it still causes lasting harm and trauma,” Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll said Thursday. “And very often it is the precursor to physical harm. By making it clear that this behavior is criminal, you can prevent harm, prevent violence and support survivors of domestic violence.”

Describing her own and her children’s experiences with domestic violence, Robinson said that if this law had been in place “at the height” of her trauma, she might not have had to endure “the loss of her job and the fear of not knowing what comes next.”

“The passage of this bill means that survivors’ voices are not only being heard, but that we are being believed and that we now have a criminal justice system that finally gets it,” Robinson said.

Christina Pavlina, co-founder and executive director of Jane Does Well, a nonprofit that provides support to women and children going through divorce, said Massachusetts has followed the example of New Jersey, Connecticut and California in adding coercive control to the legal definition of abuse.

“When a victim goes to court, a judge will understand for the first time that there was a power imbalance when the victim was isolated or threatened and intimidated, even if he or she did not suffer any physical scars,” Pavlina said.

The bill also proposes new education and diversion programs to address the issue of sexting among teenagers.

It requires the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to encourage school districts to implement age-appropriate instruction and media literacy on sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages for all grade levels.

“As mayor and former school board chair, it is critical to me that we have the tools we need for each grade level,” Driscoll said. “It is so important to make sure young people understand the dangers of this activity, especially as the technology available to them changes rapidly.”

With Healey’s signature on Thursday, Massachusetts became the 49th state to explicitly ban revenge porn, with the only exception being South Carolina.

When asked by reporters why it took so long, Senate President Karen Spilka said it was “a complicated matter.”

“(It’s) a very emotional issue for people. The legislators worked hard, and now it’s actually a more comprehensive bill with the AI ​​piece and other pieces than it would have been a few years ago. But I know Senator Keenan, Senator Eldridge and Representative Day worked really hard to get it done and got it to the finish line, so I commend them for their hard work,” Spilka said.

Former Gov. Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Gov. Karyn Polito have been pushing lawmakers for several years to pass legislation criminalizing the involuntary distribution of other people’s nude photos or videos. Neither Healey nor Driscoll mentioned Baker or Polito at the press conference.

When asked by a reporter how much credit the former Republican governor deserves, Spilka said she thanked Baker for his work, but “the biggest thanks go to the survivors.”

“Survivors and those who went through it, by telling, by having the courage to tell their stories even though there was so much trauma and pain involved – that’s really made a difference,” Spilka said. “The survivors are the ones who made a difference and carried this across the finish line.”