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Mass. House unanimously passes bill to prevent abuse and exploitation, enhance protections for survivors

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Addresses teen sexting and image-based sexual assault, coercive control; extends statute of limitations for some domestic violence offenses


Special to The Advocate


On January 10, 2024, Rep. Joe McGonagle, along with his colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, passed (151-0) legislation that combines several separate legislative initiatives into one bill that will help to prevent abuse and exploitation and will enhance protections for survivors. The legislation, which is titled “An Act to prevent abuse and exploitation” (H.4241), 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. On January 11, the Senate referred the bill to its committee on Ways and Means.

“This legislation modernizes our criminal laws by ensuring that those who share explicit images of others without their consent face punishment, while also educating minors on the dangers of sharing explicit images of themselves rather than imposing some of the criminal justice system’s most severe consequences,” said House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano (D-Quincy). “I’m also incredibly proud of this legislation’s bolstered protections for survivors, including the added consideration of nonphysical forms of abuse for those seeking restraining orders from their abusers. I want to thank Chairman Day and the Judiciary Committee, along with each bill sponsor and all my colleagues in the House for prioritizing this vital legislation.”

“While useful resources, technology and social media today also have the potential to be dangerous,” said McGonagle. “This bill provides for the education of safe use and preventing exploitation, which is crucial to our youth. It also helps protect survivors who are too often left defenseless. To me, this bill is a no-brainer. Thank you to Speaker Mariano, Chair Day and all in leadership who fought for this bill. The Commonwealth will be better for it.”

“The House has heard the urgent call of survivors to enhance protections and ensure that our laws keep up with technology. But the House doesn’t just listen, we act,” said Representative Michael S. Day (D-Stoneham), who is House Chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary. “It’s critical that these reforms pass into law quickly so that victims of coercive control, adolescent sexting and revenge porn aren’t left without relief.”

Currently, minors who possess, purchase or share explicit photos of themselves or other minors are charged with violating Massachusetts child pornography laws and are required to register as sex offenders. The legislation passed instead authorizes commitment to the Department of Youth Services (DYS), but also allows minors to be diverted to an educational program in lieu of criminal punishment. However, a district attorney is allowed to petition the court to bring criminal charges in extreme cases.

The bill mandates the creation of an educational diversion program by the Attorney General in consultation with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), DYS and the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. The diversion program would provide teenagers with information about the legal and nonlegal consequences of sexting, which would be made available to school districts. DESE would 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 by the House 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, intimidate, 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 threating 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 passed by the House 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.

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