Proposal would impose fines for texting unwanted sexual images in Wisconsin

Democratic bill goes after 'cyber flashing,' mirrors other bills across the country

Person texting on a smartphone
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People who send unsolicited sexual images to others by text or email in Wisconsin could face a fine of up to $500 under a new proposal from Democratic state lawmakers.

Under the bill, someone at least 18 years old who knowingly sends an unsolicited image that is obscene or sexually explicit by electronic means could face a fine of up to $250 for the first offense and up to $500 for subsequent offenses. Individuals under 18 years old could be subject to a written warning for the first offense and a maximum $250 fine for subsequent offenses.

Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the state needs to crack down on what is sometimes called “cyber flashing.”

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“We need to hold folks accountable when they are sexually harassing folks,” she said. “It’s clearly predatory and disturbing behavior, and we want to make sure that folks have the understanding that this is not OK.”

Agard argued evolving technology in recent years has changed the landscape for potential sexual predators.

“The digital age has really changed how it is that we look at our laws — and we need be paying attention to consent and the digital age,” she said.

The proposal is being co-sponsored by Rep. Lee Snodgrass, D-Appleton. In a prepared statement, Snodgrass said the rising popularity of online dating and the use of apps to connect with potential partners has led to an increase in the transfer of unwanted sexual images.

She called the practice “extremely violating.”

Agard said she was contacted about introducing the plan in Wisconsin by Bumble, a popular dating app. For the past few years, Bumble has advocated for similar bills across the country and overseas.

In 2018, the company commissioned a study that found one third of its female users had received an unsolicited sexual image at some point. A 2021 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology said recent research suggests “around 50% of adults reported receiving an unsolicited sexual message/image or genital image … and slightly fewer reported sending one.”

The proposal is being circulated for co-sponsorship among lawmakers until late December. Agard said she has not communicated with Republican legislative leaders about their support for the plan. This will be the first time such a proposal has been introduced in the state Legislature.

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