Massachusetts House Unanimously Passes Bill to Prevent Abuse and Exploitation, Enhance Protections for Survivors

BOSTON – Wednesday, January 10, 2024 – The Massachusetts House of Representatives today passed legislation that combines several separate legislative initiatives into one bill that will help to 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.

“I am proud to stand alongside my colleagues in the House as we unanimously pass this crucial legislation to prevent abuse and exploitation while enhancing protections for survivors. Today, we take a bold step toward modernizing our criminal laws, ensuring accountability for those who share explicit images without consent, and educating our youth on the consequences of their actions,” said Representative Thomas M. Stanley (D-Waltham). “I want to express my gratitude to Speaker Mariano, Chair Day, and the Judiciary Committee, as well as the dedicated advocates who recognize the importance of updating our laws to better protect victims. As this transformative and bipartisan legislation moves to the Senate, I urge swift consideration and action for the well-being of our community.”

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 today instead authorizes commitment to the Department of Youth Services (DYS), but also allows minors to be diverted to an educational program instead 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 that includes a pattern of behavior, or a single act intended to threaten, intimate, 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 passed today 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.