Sending unsolicited ‘dick pics’ could become a crime in Pennsylvania

A similar law was recently enacted in Texas, though it could face legal challenges.

dickpics-david-crop
Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
maxmarin-square

A Philly state lawmaker wants Pennsylvania to crack down on people sending sexually explicit images without consent.

Chances are, you know someone who has opened their cell phone to be unwittingly greeted by photographs of the male genitalia, aka “dick pics.” Sources say it’s not pleasant. The practice, also dubbed “cyber flashing,” was recently made illegal in Texas.

Last week, state Rep. Mary Isaacson sent out a memo seeking co-sponsors on legislation that seeks to protect Pennsylvanians from unwanted sexting.

“It’s sexual harassment and it’s actually a form of sexual assault,” Isaacson told Billy Penn. “It’s nonconsensual.”

Isaacson, who has a 17-year-old daughter, worries about the lack of consequences for people who engage in this practice. It happens in text messages, in dating apps — even over shared Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks via services like Apple’s AirDrop.

“The Airdropped dick pic epidemic is upon us,” fashion magazine Elle declared last year, citing documented cases of the trend as early as 2015.

Per Isaacson, whose district stretches from Queen Village through the River Wards, the legislation will propose fines of up to $300 and up to 90 days imprisonment, and would cover all sexually explicit images.

This summer, former chair of the Pennsylvania Republican Party Val DiGiorgio was accused of sending a picture of his penis to a City Council candidate in Philadelphia. DiGiorgio resigned after the Inquirer reported on the interaction.

The bill has yet to be formally introduced, so it remains a long way from becoming law in Harrisburg. If Texas is any indication, the bill will also face questions about enforcement.

Issacson: If Texas can do it, so can PA

Law enforcement agencies have begun to crack down on various digital age offenses, but combating unsolicited sexually explicit images is a brave new world.

Many have framed the issue in the larger context of online sexual harassment. Though it impacts men as well, research shows women contend with online victimization at much higher rates. A 2017 survey by Pew Research Center found that, among women who had been sexually harassed online, more than half had received an explicit photo they didn’t ask for.

Texas became the first state to ban cyber flashing thanks to a partnership with the Austin-based dating app Bumble. The new law classifies sending sexually explicit images without consent as a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $500.

The Cyber Civil Rights initiative reports that 46 states — including Pennsylvania — have enacted strict laws against “revenge porn” laws, which make a crime to share intimate photos of a former partner without consent.

Isaacson shaped the bill around the Texas law, she said, noting she already has a number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers interested in co-sponsoring.

“I figured if Texas could handle this, then perhaps we could get something done here in Pennsylvania,” Isaacson said.

Bumble advocates said they planned to take the cyber flashing legislation to other states, with hope it would act as a deterrent. But Texas’ law has encountered early scrutiny among legal experts, who say the phrasing is overly broad and vague.

“It reaches things that arguably could cover images related to medical advice or moms sharing information about breastfeeding or their babies’ health — things like that which certainly can’t be criminalized,” Austin-based attorney J.T. Morris told the Associated Press in August.

In recent years, social scientists have begun probing the question of why so many men engage in this practice in the first place.

A 2019 study in the Journal of Sex Research referred to the impulse in heterosexual men as “an unfortunate side effect of 1.8 million years of human evolution.”

Thanks for reading another Billy Penn story

Seems you’re the kind of person who really digs in. Want more? Sign up for our free morning newsletter, the easy way to stay on top of Philly news.

Thanks for reading Billy Penn

Like the story above, everything we publish is powered by our members. If you enjoy reading, join today: Just $5/month makes more difference than you’d think.

Thanks for reading! We need you.

Reader donations power our newsroom. If Billy Penn helps you feel more connected to Philly, we’d love to count you as a member. Will you join us?

Lock in your support

Reader support powers our newsroom. A monthly membership helps lock it in.

Can we count on you as a Billy Penn sustainer?

Winning the local journalism game

Thank you: Member support powers our newsroom.

Know someone else who might like our work? Invite them to sign up for our free morning newsletter.