Del. Rob Bell’s bill addresses sexual extortion, adapting to modern technology

Published: Feb. 7, 2023 at 6:04 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Social media is at the root of a lot of new bills in the General Assembly, presenting numerous issues Virginia lawmakers did not have to worry about in previous years.

Delegate Rob Bell represents the 58th District of Virginia, and he says a prosecutor from Fluvanna County brought him an idea for House Bill 2398.

“[The prosecutor] had a case where he thought the law didn’t sufficiently address what happened, and in his case, it was a young woman who had been pressured into having sexual relations she didn’t want to have through the threat of what we call ‘revenge porn,’” Bell said.

Fluvanna’s Commonwealth Attorney Jeff Haislip testified in Richmond, in front of a subcommittee. He says a young woman sent pictures to someone she thought cared about her. That person then threatened the woman, saying that if the she did not meet with him for a sex act, he would post those pictures on social media.

Bell says having the attorney there adds a human element to the bill, helping delegates see it is more than a theoretical issue needing to be solved.

“Somebody was going to share her pictures with the public, with the world, unless she had relations with him,” Bell said.

The current case law focuses on physical intimidation and extortion and does not include threats using photos or social media.

The woman’s case did not fit into the existing statutes since the threat was not explicitly physical. The man was ultimately charged with a lesser included offense, according to Bell.

Bell unfortunately thinks cases like this will most likely occur again with the current prevalence of technology and social media.

“The goal is certainly to ensure that if it does happen to someone else, that [the perpetrator] receives punishments commensurate with the crime,” Bell said.

Others in the House agree. The bill, adding videos and photos under the classification of sexual extortion, passed unanimously in the first two votes.

“Republicans and Democrats had no dispute that this is something we ought to do,” Bell said.

Now, the bill has to go through the Senate, where Bell is not a chairman, and it will need new support to advance into law. He says essentially, it’s like starting over when it comes to seeking support.

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