WASHINGTON - A group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday to combat online sexual exploitation, just a week after the leak on social media of an explicit photo of a Republican congressman from Texas.
The legislation would create federal criminal liability for "revenge porn," already forbidden in most states but not in federal law.
Last week, a nude photograph of Rep. Joe Barton was leaked on Twitter, prompting a swift apology from the lawmaker. Barton said he had sent intimate material to a lover and she had threatened to make it public when he ended the relationship. The woman denied being the source of the leak.
Circulating explicit material without the subject's consent is against the law in most states, Texas among them, although it is not known where the leak came from. The new bill, dubbed the Enough Act, would make such misconduct a federal crime as well.
The legislation has the backing of Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota as well as Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina. California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who has been outspoken against sexual misconduct in Congress, is sponsoring the bill in the House.
Tim O'Hare, Republican Party chairman in Barton's home county of Tarrant, said in a statement Tuesday that the congressman shouldn't seek re-election and should retire by year's end. Jake Ellzey, a retired Naval combat pilot and member of the Texas Veterans Commission, filed paperwork Tuesday to challenge Barton in a Republican primary.
The bill is part of a wave of legislation being introduced to fight gender hostility, discrimination and sexually inappropriate behaviour. On Wednesday the House is expected to vote on a resolution to make sexual harassment training mandatory for all members of Congress and their staffs. The Senate voted to adopt a similar resolution earlier this month. And next week the House Administration Committee will hold a hearing to review the Congressional Accountability Act and give lawmakers the opportunity to propose updates to the more than 20-year-old law.
William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said that while 35 states have enacted statutes to protect against revenge porn, "federal intervention is necessary to provide complete and consistent coverage across state lines."
The legislation also would require that any prosecution under the Enough Act prove that the defendant knew publishing or circulating explicit images would cause harm to the victim.
"Even in states that have laws on the books, the average person can't afford to take on these predators in civil courts," said Speier, who recently introduced a bill to overhaul the process of filing sexual harassment complaints on Capitol Hill in order to make it more victim-friendly. Speier, who shared her own story of being sexually assaulted by a staffer, has become the face of the anti-harassment movement on Capitol Hill.
Although Barton is the most recent lawmaker to find himself in hot water over an explicit photo, it's a former Democratic colleague who became the poster child for sexual misdeeds in the digital realm.
Earlier this month, disgraced politician and registered sex offender Anthony Weiner reported to prison to begin serving his 21-month sentence for sending sexually explicit material to a 15-year-old girl.
Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.