Government & Politics

‘Revenge porn’ bill receives renewed attention amid Greitens investigation

Thirty-eight states have outlawed revenge porn, but not Missouri.

A bipartisan group of the state’s lawmakers hopes to change that this year.

This is legislators’ fourth attempt in recent years to prohibit revenge porn, and it comes at a time when Gov. Eric Greitens is under criminal investigation for allegedly taking a photo of a woman with whom he was having an affair and threatening to show it to others if she talked about their relationship.

The revenge porn legislation would not apply to the allegations in Greitens’ case — he is not accused of showing any photo to anyone else — but the scandal surrounding his 2015 affair has raised awareness of the issue, lawmakers said.

“We understand, I think, even more now with the governor’s situation, the seriousness of this,” said Rep. Stacey Newman, a St. Louis County Democrat who sits on the committee that heard the bill earlier this week.

Rep. Kevin Engler, a Farmington Republican who sponsored a version of the bill in the past, expressed doubt that lawmakers would shy from the issue because of its connection to the scandal.

“I don’t think that there’s anybody in this building that’s job is fervently defending the governor,” Engler said. “None of us are defending him.”

The bill would make it a class D felony to share sexually explicit images or recordings without the consent of the person pictured.

While Missouri’s invasion of privacy statute outlaws a person taking a sexually explicit images of a person without their consent, there is no state law that specifically addresses the circulation of the image. According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for victims of non-consensual pornography and online abuse, 38 states and the District of Columbia have such laws.

Mary Anne Franks, the legislative and tech policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, said a range of situations can fall under the scope of non-consensual pornography, including photos captured with or without consent, videotaped sexual assaults and hacking into someone’s iCloud account and sharing images from it.

In the digital age, the viral and pervasive nature of images being spread on the internet can have lasting effects, said Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“It’s devastating. You have no control. It can be damaging to your personal status,” Coble said. “It causes significant emotional distress. Oftentimes, the images are sent out worldwide. People have lost their jobs. They have felt that they need to move.”

Without a law in Missouri, it’s more difficult for victims to seek protection, said Sandy Davidson, an attorney and Missouri School of Journalism professor.

“It makes it difficult for prosecutors because prosecutors have to be able to point to an exact law under which somebody can be prosecuted,” Davidson said.

Victims can ask to have their images removed by many search engines and social media platforms, as outlined in the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative’s guide. And in some cases, there are instances in which non-consensual pornography may fall under the scope of related laws, providing a means of recourse.

However, Franks said that shouldn’t be used as a justification to not establish a law specifically addressing revenge porn.

“It’s really a question of justice. It’s vitally important as a symbolic and social message for the state to say, ‘This is not something that we consider acceptable. You are not allowed to use people’s private information in this way,’ ” Franks said.

The issue has been before the legislature for a handful of years now, but it has never been debated by the full House or Senate.

Rep. Jim Neely, a Cameron Republican, is sponsoring the bill for a second year, and said it was important the issue continues to be raised.

“There’s lobby for roads. There’s lobby for energy. There’s lobby for a lot of things out there,” Neely said, “but there’s no lobby for some of these individual problems that people have issues with.”

Engler attributed Missouri’s lack of a revenge porn law partially to a reluctance on the part of male lawmakers to discuss the issue.

“I don’t think the chairman or a lot of the men feel comfortable talking about these issues, which is, in my estimation, ridiculous,” Engler said.

Newman said with the national conversation surrounding consent, she thinks progress will be made this year.

“Only 20 percent of us here in the (legislature) are women, but I think more men are getting it too — that no one wants their wives, daughters, sisters in this situation.”

Missouri’s lack of a revenge porn law has received increased attention amid Greitens’ scandal. While high-profile scandals can have the effect of spurring legislative change, Franks said that sometimes it can have the opposite effect by causing legislators to avoid the issue.

Regardless, Franks said she hopes that the scandal has caused more Missourians to consider adopting the legislation.

“If we think it’s right and just that people can give out their Social Security (numbers) to certain people,” Franks said, “or they can provide their driver’s license to certain people or their credit cards — without that information then becoming public knowledge — then we should think the same thing about private sexually explicit information.”