We must make sexual extortion illegal in Pennsylvania

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April 3, 2019

Op-Ed by Karen Baker, Chief Executive Officer of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, Richard Goldinger, President of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, and  Legal Momentum Deputy Legal Director Jennifer M. Becker


Send me another image, or I will send what I have to your whole school . . .

Send me a nude photo, or I will get you in trouble with your boss . . .

Do this sexual act, or I will evict you for being late with rent . . .

Sext with me, and I will give extra hall passes and privileges at school . . .

Meet up with me for sex, or I will share your photos with your wife . . .

Do these sexual acts, and I will offer you lighter penalties for an alleged crime . . .

Send me explicit images, and I will get you that job . . .

Sexual extortion is a serious sex crime happening everywhere in Pennsylvania.

Offenders target vulnerable Pennsylvanians—children, teens, and adults. Children with developmental or cognitive disabilities are often targeted, as are children who have been subjected to sexual abuse or family abuse at home. As technology advances, so do the number of victims.

Acts of sexual extortion are not illegal in Pennsylvania, due to gaps in current law. It is time to close this loophole and pass legislation that holds offenders accountable for this devastating conduct.

The Department of Justice refers to sexual extortion as “by far the most significantly growing threat to children” with the highest child-to-offender ratio of all child sex crimes.

The case of Richard Finkbiner presents one example: he harmed 153 young victims and obtained 22,000 video files and 47,000 images before authorities were able to stop him.

Cases from around the country and here in Pennsylvania show anyone can be vulnerable—not only children and teens, but also adults in vulnerable positions such as employees, tenants, victims of natural disasters, parents involved in custody cases, college students, and people dating online.

Perpetrators abuse their power to coerce sexual acts, images, or videos from victims. It is sadly common for one offender to have hundreds of victims in our current digital age. They stalk social networking and dating sites. They hack computers and webcams.

They create fake profiles to join a victim’s network. They manipulate and deceive to obtain images and videos of a victim and then threaten to release those images unless the victim sends them more.

Victims are severely impacted by sexual extortion—similarly to victims of other sex crimes. They feel haunted, not knowing when or where their images will surface, or when their abuser will demand more.

They lose concentration at school or work. They are unsafe at home, due to the offender’s relentless harassment, threats, and stalking. They fear the perpetrator will harm them or someone they love.

And perpetrators are relentless. When one victim told her offender that his sexual extortion made her feel like killing herself, he replied, “glad I could help you out.” As explained by one 17-year-old sexual extortion victim, “I felt like I was being raped through a phone.”

Current law focuses on extortion by theft and does not include sexual acts, images, or videos as a thing of value. Our existing laws do not adequately address sexual extortion, nor do they sufficiently address the complex ways technology facilitates these offenses.

The end result? Prosecutors are left trying to piece together statutes that do not measure up to the full scope of these offenses. And victims are left with little to no recourse.

These are serious offenses that must be held accountable and ultimately prevented. Whether it is a child or adult, online or in-person setting—sexual extortion always involves coercion and an intentional abuse of power that must be addressed.

It is time to expressly criminalize sexual extortion in Pennsylvania.

Last week, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee convened an informational meeting on sexual extortion, where Chairman Robert Kauffman expressed his interest in prioritizing this legislation.

The next day, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously supported a bill (Senate Bill 337: Senators Schwank & K. Ward) that would criminalize sexual extortion in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association (PDAA), and Legal Momentum applaud the Chairs and members of these Committees for their leadership in prioritizing this issue.

Recent efforts to raise awareness have brought sexual extortion out of the shadows. Since 2016, ten states have expressly criminalized sexual extortion. It is time for Pennsylvania to join as the 11th state in passing legislation.

Pennsylvanians need this protection and a criminal justice system that can effectively hold perpetrators accountable.

PCAR, PDAA, and Legal Momentum urge the General Assembly of Pennsylvania to pass, and Governor Wolf to sign, legislation that will criminalize sexual extortion this session.

Karen Baker is Chief Executive Officer, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape; Richard Goldinger is president, Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, and Jennifer M. Becker is Deputy Legal Director and Senior Attorney, Legal Momentum the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.