Legislation addresses teen sexting and image-based sexual assault, coercive control, and extends the statute of limitations for certain domestic violence offenses

(BOSTON) – On Wednesday, January 10, Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull) joined the Massachusetts House of Representatives to pass legislation that combines several separate legislative initiatives into one bill which will help prevent abuse and exploitation, while also enhancing protections for survivors. The legislation addresses teen sexting and image-based sexual assault, commonly referred to as “revenge porn”; expands the definition of abuse to include coercive control for the purposes of obtaining a restraining order; and extends the statute of limitations for certain domestic violence offenses from six years to 15 years.

“We know that abuse extends beyond the physical; emotional and psychological damage caused by manipulation and control is something this bill intends to prevent,” said State Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull). “Equally important is that our youth receive information and education to avoid what can be very traumatizing experiences; there are real and lasting consequences to sending or sharing explicit images. For addressing these matters, I’d like to recognize my House colleagues, Speaker Mariano, Chair Michlewitz, and Chair Day for advancing this critically important legislation.”

Currently, minors who possess, purchase, or share explicit photos of themselves or other minors are charged with violating Massachusetts child pornography laws and are therefore required to register as sex offenders. This legislation instead authorizes the commitment of the minor to the Department of Youth Services (DYS) and access to a subsequent educational program in lieu of criminal punishment. A district attorney, however, is allowed to petition the court to bring criminal charges in extreme cases.

The educational diversion program, to be created by the Attorney General in consultation with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), DYS, and the District Attorneys Association, would provide teenagers with information about the legal and nonlegal consequences of sexting, which would be made available to school districts. DESE should also encourage districts to implement media literacy programs in their schools as a prevention measure.
In addition to teen sexting, the bill addresses the nonconsensual distribution of explicit images by adults by establishing a penalty in the existing criminal harassment statute, including up to two and a half years of prison time and/or a monetary fine of up to $10,000. The bill increases the upper limit of the fine for criminal harassment from $1,000 to $5,000. Under this bill, a victim may also petition the court for a harassment prevention order against a person who has violated this statute.

The bill passed today also adds coercive control to the definition of abuse. Coercive control is a nonphysical form of abuse which includes a pattern of behavior, or a single act intended to threaten, intimated, harass, isolate, control, coerce or compel compliance of a family or household member that causes the family or household member to fear physical harm or to have a reduced sense of physical safety or autonomy. Examples of coercive control include threatening to share explicit images, regulating or monitoring a family or household member’s communications and access to services, and isolating a family or household member from friends or relatives.

The legislation also extends the statute of limitations for assault and battery on a family or household member or against someone with an active protective order from six years to 15 years. This change brings the Massachusetts statute of limitations for these domestic violence offenses in line with the statute of limitations for rape, assault with intent to commit rape and sex trafficking.

An Act to prevent abuse and exploitation (H.4241) passed the House of Representatives 151-0. It now goes to the Senate for their consideration.