Sending Unsolicited Sexual Photos is Now Illegal in This State

About half of all millennial women said they have received sexual photographs before.

About half of all millennial women said they have received sexual photographs before. Shutterstock

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The new Texas law aims to stop online sexual harassment.

A new law in Texas makes it illegal to send unsolicited sexual photographs to other people over text messages, email, dating apps, and social media. Under the ban, sending these kind of photos without the consent of the recipient is now a misdemeanor and punishable with a fine up to $500.

A 2017 survey of men and women illustrated exactly how common it is for millennial women to get these kind of photos. About half of the women surveyed said they had received a picture of male genitalia over text or online, and a whopping 78% said that those pictures were sent without their consent. Of the men who acknowledged sending photos in the survey, one in four admitted that they had sent pictures without first asking if the person on the other end wanted to see them. 

The survey also found a chasm between men and women’s perceptions of these types of photos. Women typically described the photos as  “gross,” “stupid,” and “sad.” Men were asked what they thought women’s reactions to their photos might be, and while “gross” was also the top response, “sexy” was the next most common answer.

The law in Texas, which took effect at the beginning of this month, was written by state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Republican from Dallas. He worked with people from the dating app Bumble, which is based in Austin, on the bill. Bumble, which has branded itself as a “feminist dating app” because women are required to send the first message, said that many women on their platform have been “cyberflashed” in recent years.

Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd testified in front of the legislature to support the proposed law. "Lately, it feels like men and women are being told that this increasingly common problem is really no big deal. Women in particular are expected to laugh this sort of thing off," she said. "But there’s nothing funny about it."

Some critics of the new law have questioned whether it is too broad and ripe for a First Amendment challenge. They wondered, for example, if the law could accidentally criminalize the act of sending photos to doctors, or posting a photo on social media of a woman breastfeeding. Last year, a Texas court rejected a state law against “revenge porn” because of free speech concerns. 

But the measure passed the legislature unanimously, and Gov. Greg Abbott signed the legislation into law in May. “Many people—especially women—get unwanted sexually explicit pictures by text or social media. It’s disgusting. Now, it’s illegal in Texas,” he tweeted on the day he signed.

Bumble Chief of Staff Caroline Roche told Route Fifty via email that she was pleased to see the first state law on this issue enacted in the company’s backyard, adding that Bumble will now push for federal legislation. "We are so proud of Texas for stepping to the forefront of the overdue era of online safety and accountability, and I'm proud of Bumble for being a part of a movement that drives change like this,” she said.

While other states haven’t taken on the unwanted explicit photos issue directly, Illinois approved its own proposal aimed at improving young people’s understanding of consent. The state legislature this year passed a new law to set guidelines for discussions of consent during public school seuxal education classes.  

New York City council members are considering the unsolicited pictures issue, following complaints from train riders that men were using Apple’s AirDrop feature to send sexually explicit photos to other people in a subway car. AirDrop allows people to send photos to anyone who also has the feature turned on in their vicinity—and it’s difficult to trace back to individual phones. Because the service requires people to view the images on their phone before accepting them, there is no way not to see the photos.

A bill introduced last year in New York City mirrors the Texas one, making it a misdemeanor “to send an unsolicited sexually explicit video or image to another person with intent to harass, annoy or alarm such other person.” If prosecuted for the crime, offenders could spend up to a year in jail and face a fine up to $1,000.

Council member Joseph Borelli, a Republican who helped bring the bill to the council, told the New York Times that the law needed to catch up with new methods of harassment. “In the old days, you had to have a long trench coat and good running shoes,” he said. “Technology has made it significantly easier to be a creep.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route FIfty.

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