The ubiquitous use of dating apps and other online messaging platforms has led to an explosion in people receiving unsolicited nude pictures of someone they have never met. Some states want to penalize that.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers in Virginia passed legislation in March that would punish those who unbidden drop their pants online. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has signed the bill, and it will take effect July 1.
Any adult who sends an unsolicited nude image to another adult would be subject to civil penalties, and the recipient of such pictures would be entitled to damages of $500.
The Virginia bill follows a 2019 law in Texas that makes it a criminal offense to send unsolicited nudes.
The legislation in both states was championed by Bumble, a dating app that allows women to make the first move when contacting potential romantic partners or friends.
A 2018 survey by Bumble found that one in three women using the app had received unsolicited nude pictures from someone they hadn’t met, and 95 percent of them said they were unhappy to have been subject to such sightings.
Bumble is backing similar bills in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to penalize the sending of unsolicited nudes, said Payton Iheme, the company’s head of public policy for Americas.
Iheme said the company has chosen to press the issue in states first before attempting a federal solution through Congress.
“You really have to first get citizens informed that this is something that they don't have to deal with,” Iheme told CQ Roll Call about women having to put up with getting unsolicited naked pictures online. “Many of the women that we speak with, they’re like, ‘This is just part of doing business on the internet.’”
In addition to criminal and civil penalties, bills at the state level include the ability for a plaintiff to get an injunction to prevent continued harassment, Iheme said. “That's a lot easier to do at the state level than in federal courts.”
The state-by-state approach is similar to the passage of laws criminalizing so-called revenge porn.
All 50 states plus the District of Columbia have laws that criminalize revenge porn — the posting of intimate pictures and videos that may have been digitally shared between two parties during their relationship, or captured without consent by one party, but then posted online without consent of the subject.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has long championed stand-alone federal legislation to address revenge porn, but those measures have not been passed. In March, President Joe Biden signed into law a newly reauthorized version of the Violence Against Women Act that includes a provision for federal civil penalties against individuals who post online intimate images of others without their consent.
One doesn’t have to be on dating apps or in a relationship to be subject to unwanted nudes, said Virginia Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, a Democrat representing Virginia Beach, who initially proposed legislation to address the problem.
Convirs-Fowler, who’s a registered real estate agent, said people often find the listed phone numbers of brokers online and send them unsolicited nudes.
“Most of us … ugh … roll our eyes and ignore or, say, block the number,” Convirs-Fowler told CQ Roll Call.
But there was one case where an agent received a FaceTime video call of a naked person, and when the agent tried to lodge a complaint she was told there were no laws prohibiting the digital transmission of videos or pictures, Convirs-Fowler said.
In contrast, states have laws against indecent exposure or flashing in person.
Convirs-Fowler said her 2021 bill banning “digital indecent communication," which she referred to by its likely intentional acronym, passed overwhelmingly in the state’s House of Delegates with a 99-0 vote, making it a misdemeanor offense, but failed in the state Senate.
Some senators objected, saying Convirs-Fowler’s bill could turn pictures and videos exchanged between two individuals during a relationship into a criminal offense after the relationship ends. Others said the bill could criminalize art showing naked body parts.
Virginia Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat who serves on the state Senate Judiciary Committee, said she revived the bill in 2022 with the backing of Sens. Jill Holtzman Vogel, a Republican, and Jennifer Boysko, a Democrat.
Convirs-Fowler teamed up with Republican Del. Carrie Coyner to reintroduce the legislation after dropping criminal penalties that were part of her 2021 bill. The legislation unanimously passed both chambers.
The bill’s backers dropped criminal provisions to address concerns raised by some senators last year, McClellan told CQ Roll Call.
The bill also clarifies that the civil penalties and charges apply only to adults above 18 years of age and the person complaining has to prove that the picture or video was unsolicited, McClellan said.
The bills being considered in New York and California would impose civil penalties, Iheme said.
Cyber flashing is not a problem just in the United States.
The U.K. in March said as part of its new Online Safety Bill, the government intended to criminalize the transmission of unsolicited nudes with two-year prison terms for perpetrators.
The British government cited research from 2020 that found that 76 percent of young women aged 12 to 18 had been sent unsolicited naked images by boys or men.
In some cases, the U.K. government said, the photos were sent by perpetrators via Bluetooth or on the Apple iPhone using the Airdrop function to recipients who happened to be nearby. Such transmission showed a preview of the images on a recipient’s device even if the recipient rejected the photos, the U.K. government said.
“It is unacceptable that women and girls traveling on public transport, or just going about their day-to-day lives, are being subjected to this despicable practice,” U.K. Justice Minister Victoria Atkins said in a statement.