‘This can never happen again:’ At Capitol rally, activists push for bill criminalizing ‘sextortion’

Rachel Farrow, of Transitions of PA, speaks during a rally in Capitol rotunda on May 7, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Rachel Farrow was just 15 when she went looking for her first job in a “big city with an amusement park.” She wasn’t looking for much, just a minimum wage job. But to get it, she had to pay a high price. Her would-be bosses made that clear.

“Part of the rite of passage for that job, or so it was told to me at the time, was that, in order to get one of the older boys to give you a reference, you need[ed] to send them photos of yourself, lewd photos, photos that made me uncomfortable,” she recalled. “Many of my peers told me at the time that this was just the way it worked, this is just what you did. It was a tit for tat, if you will. And you sent that photo — in order to get gainful employment.”

On Tuesday, Farrow, of the Synder County-based advocacy group Transitions of PA, joined other allied groups in the Capitol rotunda to rally for legislation that would ensure what happened to her — and scores of others — never happens again.

Legislation now before the state House and Senate would make what’s known as “sexual extortion,” which “occurs when a person uses coercion and misuses their power to demand sexual acts, images, or videos from victims,” a crime.

In such an instance, “perpetrators withhold an essential service or thing of value from the victim, threaten a punishment, or offer a reward—contingent upon whether or not the victim complies” with those demands, according to a House memo seeking support for the proposal.

Right now, there is no specific offense for such an occurrence, which advocates referred to as “sextortion.” The state’s current extortion law, which predates the internet, only addresses instances of extortion involving property or money, according to Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo, who spoke at Tuesday’s rally.

Cases such as Farrow’s, as awful as they are, can only be prosecuted as harassment or stalking, which carry less severe penalties, Chardo said.

How the Pa. General Assembly is trying to expand rights for crime victims

Under the House and Senate bills, first-time violators would be punished with a first-degree misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. More severe violations, such as when the victim is a minor or a person with an intellectual disability, would be punished with a third-degree felony, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.

Juveniles, like Farrow, make up the bulk of the victims of sexual extortion, with more than seven in 10 cases involving those aged 18 or younger, bill co-sponsor Rep. Tedd C. Nesbitt, R-Mercer, wrote in that memo to his fellow lawmakers.

“A 2015 FBI sexual extortion investigation found that offenders were specifically seeking out children they considered easy targets because of their demonstrated willingness to post personal content online and engage in live-streaming video activity, whether the content was sexually explicit or not,” wrote Nesbitt, who’s been joined in his effort by Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Philadelphia Democrat.

When sextortion happens “you feel like less of a person, like you subjected yourself to this,” said Sen. Judy Schwank, a Berks County Democrat who’s co-sponsoring the Senate version with Republican Kim Ward, of Westmoreland County.

But “you were made a victim,” by the act of an unscrupulous landlord, employer, or a police officer demanding sexually and personally demeaning behavior in exchange for an apartment, a job, or a reduced charge, she said.

“it’s time we treat [sextortion] like the crime it actually is,” Schwank said.

The appeal from Farrow and other advocates came during an annual Capitol lobbying day put on by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. In addition to the passage of the “sextortion” bill, the two groups are also seeking more funding in the 2019-20 state budget and legislative authorization of better standards for the collection and testing of evidence in sexual assault cases.

Thanks to the seismic shift in public awareness brought on by, among other things, the #MeToo movement, last year’s grand jury report on sexual assault in the Catholic Church, and the sexual assault conviction of former funnyman Bill Cosby, advocates “have the opportunity to create real and lasting change,” Karen Baker, the chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol are sponsoring scores of victim-centered bills during this legislative session, including one known as Marsy’s Law that would enshrine victims’ rights in the Pennsylvania Constitution. If that bill is approved by the Senate, it will be sent to the voters for a statewide referendum.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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