What’s Wrong with Teen Sexting?
The teen pastime of “sexting” has taken a serious tangle with the law of late in our fair state of Pennsylvania. For those who haven’t heard of the phenomenon, “sexting” is the practice of sending nude or semi-nude pictures of oneself (or of one’s closest friends or enemies) via cell phone to a love interest, a friend, or as many classmates as possible. A recent study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 20% of teens surveyed had electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves — so this appears to be a sizeable and quite serious problem. Even worse is the jaw-dropping response from local law enforcement.
In one example, last fall, school officials from the Tunkhannock School District in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, seized several cell phones from high school students. The officials searched the phones and discovered that male students had been using them to trade photos of semi-nude and nude female students. The local district attorney threatened to charge three girls — two photographed in white bras and one with a towel covering her from the waist down — with child pornography or open lewdness unless they agreed to participate in probation in the form of a five-week re-education program. He did not threaten to bring charges against any of the boys trading photographs on their cell phones. The concerns raised by this approach abound: privacy, free speech, proportional punishment (if found guilty of child pornography, the teens would be subject to Megan’s Laws disclosure requirements and other sex offender laws), and, of most interest to yours truly, the gendered nature of this particular bit of legal discourse.
Posing for or simply allowing semi-nude photos to be taken of oneself seems to me to be typical teenage risk-taking behavior — standard slumber party fare. The difference in today’s world, of course, is the technology that can spread the image virally and have a real impact on a teenager’s reputation and future. Rather than recognizing the problem as one of immaturity and perhaps naivete, the district attorney’s heavy-handed approach seeks to brand these girls as immoral miscreants while letting the boys responsible for spreading the images do so with impunity. The message, then, is that girls must be chaste at all times or else they will face serious repercussions, but “boys will be boys.” Moreover, this “blame the victim” mentality assumes that the girls are the sole cause of a rather complex problem. Perhaps that’s what the district attorney plans to teach at his re-education program in which those charged are to “gain an understanding of what it means to be a girl in today’s society.” While the problem of teen sexting should be of great concern to all parents, threatening those photographed with child pornography charges should scare the pants off all of us. Let’s just hope nobody has a digital camera at the ready.