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Legal Momentum in the Media

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  • Date: January 4, 2018 Featured In: San Francisco Chronicle

    Op-Ed by California State Senator Connie M. Leyva and Legal Momentum Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Becker

    Over the past several months, a loud national conversation has been taking place about sexual harassment and assault — in Hollywood, in business, the judiciary, and in the halls of Congress and state legislatures. The conduct revealed is not new and all stems from the same root cause — abuse of power.

    For as long as we’ve documented history, people in power have chosen to abuse it. These abuses are perpetrated in many forms, but abusing power for sexual gratification is an age-old variety. The current national conversation, the #MeToo movement, and all of the women (and men) coming forward will change nothing without meaningful channels to report and respond to these abuses of power and sexual exploitation.

    In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB500 into law. By adding just a few words to California’s extortion statute, this law will protect Californians from “sextortion” by providing a clear path to report this abuse to law enforcement and a tool for prosecutors to seek accountability from offenders. Sextortion is where the currency demanded is not money but sex or sexual images. It is, at its very core, an abuse of power. Look at the narratives being told by victims and survivors in today’s conversation about sexual harassment — sextortion is woven throughout.

    Providing tools for law enforcement is critical, as these crimes are often too difficult and painful for victims to rely solely on civil remedies. SB500 gives prosecutors a way to bring these sexual perpetrators to justice through the criminal courts.

    The problem of sextortion has proliferated in the digital age as the Internet and social media began to drive how we interact with each other. Abusers have used technology and social media — while shielded behind computer and phone screens — to create or increase their power over countless victims. These victims, disproportionately girls and women, stripped of their sense of safety and dignity, too often have suffered in silence. The perpetrators believed they were shielded from the reach of justice. We must do more to pull them from the safe haven they have enjoyed for far too long.

    SB500, championed by the bipartisan Legislative Women’s Caucus, passed both houses of the Legislature without a single “no” vote. Abuses of power in the form of sexual harassment and assault cannot be tolerated in any facet of our society. And the ability for everyone to fully engage with society in today’s world means having full and safe access to Internet technologies and social media.

    Other states have also acted recently to close legal loopholes that allowed sextortion offenders to escape accountability. In 2017, Utah, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas passed similar legislation with bipartisan support. Bills to combat sexual extortion are pending in New York, Arizona, the District of Columbia and New Jersey, and federal legislation has also been introduced with bipartisan sponsors.

    We call upon other states to follow this lead, to build upon this momentum and to update their laws to ensure abuses of power like sexual extortion do not remain hidden or go unpunished.

    State Sen. Connie M. Leyva, D-Chino, authored SB500 and is vice chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus. Jennifer M. Becker is an attorney for Legal Momentum, the oldest legal advocacy group for women in the United States.

  • Date: October 18, 2017 Featured In: Reuters

    NEW YORK, Oct 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The torrent of stories of sexual harassment and assault in the wake of claims about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein could help propel campaigns to make sextortion illegal, according to activists trying to change laws in the United States.

    Sextortion - a form of extortion that involves sexual acts or images as its currency - is not recognized by criminal laws in many U.S. states and victims often have little or no recourse, experts say.

    The headlines, social media and watercooler conversations prompted by the Weinstein case are "incredibly powerful" in illustrating the extent of the problem, said Jennifer Becker, senior staff attorney with Legal Momentum, The Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, that works to combat sextortion.

    Using hashtag #MeToo, tens of thousands of women have gone to Twitter and Facebook to recount experiences of being verbally abused, groped, molested and raped by bosses, teachers and family.

    "It's an abuse of power, and so with Harvey Weinstein as an example, it's a classic age-old case of sextortion," Becker told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

    A huge hurdle in making sextortion illegal is getting the public and lawmakers to understand its scope, she said.

    "It really had never been center stage," she said. "The more instances, the more narratives out there, it certainly helps lawmakers understand that it's something that they should prioritize."

    Read more: 

  • Date: September 13, 2017 Featured In: The Hill

    Legal Momentum was invited to contribute an op-ed to The Hill on the Internet safety Modernization Act.

    In late June, Representative Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) introduced the Online Safety Modernization Act of 2017, with bipartisan support of co-sponsors Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), which aims to curb the forms of online harassment which have become colloquially known as “sextortion,” “swatting,” and “doxxing.” It updates federal criminal statutes to clearly and unambiguously prohibit these forms of online harassment and provides civil remedies for victims of these offenses. Critically necessary, it provides for collecting data on the prevalence of these forms of harassment, dedicated federal law enforcement officers to investigate and prosecute these offenses, and $24 million for training law enforcement.

  • Date: August 12, 2017 Featured In: ABA News

    Lynn Hecht Schafran, senior vice president of Legal Momentum, a women’s rights group in New York, argued that the problem is rooted in stereotypes and myths about sexual assault. She cited several famous quotes and reports, from 1904 to the present, which questioned the validity of women’s rape claims.

    “The myth that false rape accusations are rampant is rampant,” Schafran said. She said research shows 2 percent to 8 percent of rape claims are false, yet a 2010 study by the National Institute of Justice found that city and campus law enforcement officers estimated that 10 percent to 95 percent of rape claims are false.

    “All too often, the people who are charged with investigating these cases and making decisions about these cases don’t know anything about sexual assault. Making it worse, they’re sure they know everything,” she said.

  • Date: July 24, 2017 Featured In: Dallas Morning News

    The development worries some advocates working to prevent the sexual exploitation of women and children, who fear Backpage’s new payment system will make it easier to sell vulnerable girls online.

    “It’s a message to traffickers: ‘Hey, we’ll protect your privacy,’” said Caitlin McCartney, a staff attorney at Legal Momentum, a national nonprofit that’s suing Backpage on behalf of a girl the group says was raped and sold five times after traffickers advertised her on Backpage.

    “Not everybody has bitcoin,” McCartney said, “but everybody has pretty easy access to gift cards.”

    Neither Backpage nor its lawyers responded to requests for comment. 

  • Date: July 22, 2017 Featured In: Blog Talk Radio: 3 Women, 3 Ways

    Host Heather Stark and Legal Momentum's Gender Justice Fellow, Seher Khawaja, discuss how poverty disproportionately impacts women and how we can better ensure women's economic security in this installment of "3 Women, 3 Ways" on Blog Talk Radio. 

  • Date: May 19, 2017 Featured In: 7 on Your Side - ABC-7 WJLA (Washington, DC)

    Carol Robles-Roman heads Legal Momentum, an advocacy group suing to shut down the section of the online bulletin board where children are sold for sex. 

    Robles-Roman says Backpage uses an exploitive business model that pulls in millions.

    “There should not be a vehicle that has made the trafficking of kids so easy, like ‘hey, do you want to order a pizza, sure, let's do that.’ ‘Hey do you want to order a kid?’ Just as easy."


  • Date: May 7, 2017 Featured In: Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson

    Full Measure is a weekly Sunday news program hosted by Emmy award-winner Sharyl Attkisson that focuses on investi-gative, original, and accountability reporting. It airs on local news stations nationwide and streams live online Sunday mornings. Legal Momentum President and CEO Carol Robles-Román appeared on the May 7 episode to talk about how facilitates online sex trafficking of children.

    “These are young kids, these are minors, and there’s no justification. There’s no way to defend it,” Carol told reporter Lisa Fletcher. “The First Amendment does not protect criminal conduct.”

  • Date: May 2, 2017 Featured In: New York Daily News

    The Daily News Headline on April 24 read just like too many others: “Man posing as teen extorted porn out of young girls, authorities allege.”

    This and other stories continue the same way, laying out the same disturbing pattern: An adult man assumes the false identity of a male teenager, infiltrates a young girl’s social media and convinces her to take nude pictures of herself and send them to him.

    He showers the girl with online affection, develops an online relationship with her and asks for more images — calling them tokens of love.

    When the girl finally says no or begins to resist, the predator threatens that he will release the pictures online, to her parents, friends, school, church or anyone who matters to her — unless she sends more nude pictures. Afraid she will be humiliated or get into trouble, she continues to oblige.

    These acts are “sextortion,” and they are increasing with record speed in our digital age. Sextortion is extortion, but where sex or sexual imagery is demanded of the victim, instead of or in addition to money.

    The FBI has called sextortion the fastest-growing threat to children in the United States. Many perpetrators have abused multiple — even hundreds — of victims. For example, according to prosecutors, Lucas Michael Chansler victimized approximately 350 girls; Jared James Abrahams hacked the computers of 150 victims, including at least one child; and Richard Finkbiner victimized between 20 and 153 young women and children.

    Ruslan Mirvis (the 34-year-old Brooklyn man whom the Daily News reported about) allegedly sextorted at least 14 girls, ages 12 to 14, while pretending to be a 16-year-old boy.

    What is remarkable about all of these men is that they got caught. Sextortion is grossly under-reported because victims feel incredible shame and guilt, and are terrified to report it to anyone.

    Girls, teens and women are disproportionately impacted by cyber-sextortion. The negative impact of all forms of sextortion on victims’ lives is long-lasting and often irreversible.Victims are traumatized because they never know when and where sexual images of them will turn up, or who may have seen them. Victims feel ashamed and embarrassed, and often do not know where or how to seek help.As one adult sextortion victim said: “It’s affected my life, thinking about having all of these personal videos put on the internet and then connected to my name, and how that would affect my job, my future getting a job, my future finding a home-or doing anything."”Yet sextortion was not recognized as a crime — until now. Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest gender-justice legal advocacy organization (in partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe) has been working with legislators around the country to make sure that extortion, harassment and other criminal laws are updated to address sextortion, particularly cyber-sextortion.In just this past month, Arkansas and Utah have passed laws that explicitly criminalize extorting sex and sexual imagery, and recognize it as a sex crime. Legislators in California, Texas, Alabama,and Illinois have also introduced such legislation.These laws are updates of statutes that are already on the books, that are incomplete by virtue of the fact that they were enacted before the internet age, and before it became clear that sexual predators could so easily reach children electronically.Reforming laws is not the only solution for combating sextortion, however. Public education about the ways sextortion is perpetrated (both online and in person) is essential to preventing sextortion. Legal Momentum’s report “A Call to Action: Ending Sextortion in the Digital Age,”  helps both adults and children stay safe on the internet.Members of the public can help stop sextortion by:

    • Educating themselves, their families, and their communities about sextortion;
    • Talking to their children about online safety;
    • Urging legislators to enact anti-sextortion legislation;
    • Reporting sextortion when it occurs to local law enforcement or the FBI

    Working together, we can stop predators from sexually exploiting digitally savvy children, and help law enforcement arrest and prosecute sextorters as sex offenders.

  • Date: March 7, 2017 Featured In: Fordham Magazine

    Yiota Souras, LAW ’99, and Carol Robles-Román, FCLC ’83, have for many years worked as lawyers and policy advocates at the forefront of efforts to prevent child exploitation and sex trafficking—Souras in her role as general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Robles-Román in her role as president and CEO of Legal Momentum, the women’s legal defense and education fund, and in her past role as a deputy mayor for legal affairs under Michael Bloomberg in New York City.

    It’s not the kind of work that typically leads to the silver screen. But both Souras and Robles-Román played prominent roles in the new documentary I Am Jane Doe, which debuted in cities across America during February, their voices among a broad cast of legal defenders, parent plaintiffs, politicians, and recovering young women filing litigation against, an online classifieds site with an adult services section used by pimps to peddle prostitution with trafficked minors.

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