ANNAPOLIS – Del. Lesley Lopez became a victim Thursday night of exactly the kind of harassment that she’s trying to put a stop to – getting unwanted sexual images through online platforms.
Lopez, D-Montgomery, is the chief sponsor of HB 600, which would create a task force to determine the best way to prevent and respond to “nonconsensual sexual imagery” sent online. Lopez had finished the Judiciary Committee hearing on her bill when she was confronted with a direct message through Twitter of a man exposing himself to her. She reported the message to House Sergeant-at-Arms Robert Parham, who is also a trooper with the Maryland State Police.
Lopez keeps her Twitter direct messages for contact with constituents. She was having dinner with friends and was sent a direct message that began with the sender asking a question, then was followed up with a photo of him fully nude.
Lopez jumped back and told her dinner companions, “I just got cyber-flashed.”
Lopez, an officer of the Women’s Caucus and a member of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said she wasn’t surprised by the message. When she reported it, Parham told her that this message did not count as a threat, so nothing could be done about the photo. Just sending the images is not a Maryland crime, and the First Amendment protects sharing such images.
Parham could not be reached for comment.
According to research conducted by Bumble, a dating app tech company, 48% of women from ages 18-24 have received some form of unsolicited sexual image.
At the hearing, Lopez said, “Members seemed to really understand the significance of the problem based on the testimony from the individuals who could share their experiences.”
Payton Iheme, Bumble’s vice president and head of Global Policy, testified in support of the bill during the hearing. Bumble, she said, is woman-founded and women-led, and because the majority of users are women, they have “first-hand knowledge.”
Iheme said Bumble is addressing this issue globally as well, because “the internet laws have not caught up with real life.”
Iheme told lawmakers that photos are constitutionally protected, but real life experience is considered a crime. Texas was the first state to take action, classifying sexually-explicit imagery sent without the recipient’s consent as a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine.
Apple’s AirDrop feature; which allows users to send images and videos in public settings to phones and computers in the vicinity of the sender, has come under scrutiny for the ease it brings to this repellent practice.
Caroline Thorne, government affairs director for the University of Maryland Student Government Association, mentioned AirDropping in the hearing. The sender is able to change their name and does not need the recipient’s contact information to send content to them.
“Approximately two-thirds of college students have experienced sexual harassment in some form,” Thorne said.
UMD is no stranger to sexually explicit harassment, in 2021 there were six reported indecent exposures at the college, which increased to 11 indecent exposures in 2022.
Lopez said these incidents have “been normalized” in everyday life, especially for women.
The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault Executive Director Lisae Jordan also backed the task force bill, bringing up the use of deep fakes, which are videos that are digitally manipulated to present disinformation.
They found that 90-95% of deep fakes are non-consensual pornography, and 95% of this figure is of women.
“A task force really is the best way to look at all the myriad of issues,” Jordan said. “And try to make sure we can actually protect people from unwanted sexual imagery.”