The Bulletin

Virginia legislators reintroduce bill to penalize ‘cyber flashing’

By: - January 13, 2022 2:45 pm

A bipartisan group of women legislators are again pushing for a state law against unwanted nude images sent by text and over computer screens.

In a Thursday news conference, Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, announced she was bringing back a bill that would penalize sexually explicit pictures sent to anyone without their request or consent. Like last session, she said the legislation was inspired by a growing problem in the world of real estate — agents, whose cell phone numbers are typically publicized, randomly receiving “indecent” photos on the job. 

Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, and a guest on the floor of the House during the opening day of the 2020 General assembly session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“This should be a bipartisan effort,” she said. But while the legislation unanimously passed the House of Delegates, it died abruptly last year in a Senate committee, where some male legislators raised concerns about First Amendment limitations or potential unintended consequences.

“I could see a situation where boyfriends and girlfriends are trading pictures of themselves,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “And the relationship goes bad. And then a week or two or three later somebody’s swearing out a warrant saying ‘hey he keeps sending me this’ or ‘she keeps sending me that.’ And now there’s misdemeanor charges and lawyers involved.” 

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said the new iteration of the bill addresses many of those worries. Unlike last year, she’s sponsoring an identical bill in the Senate, giving her the chance to address concerns with colleagues before it goes for a vote. Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, also supports the legislation.

The bill was redrafted with help from Bumble, an online dating application that aims to “challenge heterosexual dating norms” by requiring women to make the first move in opposite-sex matches. The company modeled the Virginia bill after similar legislation it supported in Texas, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

“This is not a dating app issue — this is an internet issue,” said Bumble Public Policy Director Payton Iheme. “We are a dating company standing up for this, but these pictures can get dropped on a cell phone or on other social networks.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, adresses Senate members during the floor session in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Friday, August 28, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

While the 2021 version of Virginia’s legislation would have made sending unsolicited photos a misdemeanor offense, the redrafted bill calls for civil penalties of up to $250 for a first offense and $500 for subsequent transgressions. McClellan said state prosecutors have the authority to enforce civil penalties, but it’s up to victims to make a complaint.

“I know not a lot of victims will move ahead with this type of harassment or sexual harrassment in general, but it really puts it into the victim’s court, which is empowering,” Convirs-Fowler said. Both she and McClellan pointed out that Virginia already has a law against “revenge porn,” which could make it illegal to forward an unsolicited sexual photo but doesn’t address the act of individuals sending pictures of themselves. State laws also criminalize indecent exposure when it happens in person.

“We already have laws on the book that protect people from flashing,” McClellan said. “But now, flashing has basically gone digital.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.