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.

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14 Responses

  1. Howard Wasserman says:

    Actually, the DA did threaten to charge the 17 male students who were “caught” with the photos on their phones. In fact, all 17 took the DA’s deal and entered the re-education program. Only the two girls refused and filed suit (they got a TRO yesterday). So I agree that the DA’s handling of this has been abhorent and wrong-headed. But at least in this case, gender inequity has not been an issue.

  2. A.W. says:

    Um, these girls are immorral miscreants. Seriously, girls did not act like this when I was a teenager. And I am no more sympathetic to a “girls will be girls” defense, than a “boys will be boys” defense.

  3. JT says:

    Howard Wasserman’s note puts this case in a very different light.

    The child pornography charges certainly seem inappropriate for this situation. What would be an appropriate sanction, or should there be any sanction at all?

  4. Jaya Ramji-Nogales says:

    Thanks, Howard, for your comment, though I’m not sure we’re talking about the same situation. There are at least two “sexting” lawsuits in Pennsylvania at the moment; in this blog, I discuss the Tunkhannock case, about which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says, “Skumanick [the local D.A.] has threatened charges of child pornography against the girls — though not against the people distributing the pictures on their cell phones, the lawsuit said.” (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09084/958199-100.stm) It could be that the paper is wrong and that you have more facts about the suit, or that you’re referring to the earlier Greensburg Salem suit, to which I link at the beginning of the blog (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28679588/).

  5. Jens says:

    “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.”

    Can it? How? Why?

  6. Jaya Ramji-Nogales says:

    Re-reading the CBS News story, it appears that Howard is correct and the Post-Gazette story is inaccurate: “In Tunkhannock, a town about 130 miles north of Philadelphia, Skumanick met with about 20 students and their parents last month and offered them a deal: The youths wouldn’t be prosecuted if they took a class on sexual harassment, sexual violence and gender roles. . .Seventeen of the students accepted his offer.” (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/03/27/earlyshow/main4896577.shtml) Thanks for the catch, Howard, and I agree — while there are still some gender equity concerns, they’re less pressing if the same deal was offered to all (though if that story is correct in noting that the girls played no role in distributing the photos, there’s some imbalance in treating them identically to the boys who were knowingly distributing the photos).

    And JT — that’s a great question. Certainly some discussion of the potential dangers of digital photos is called for (though hopefully not of the sort that discusses societal gender roles), preferably involving the entire student body of the high school in question. And clearly child pornography charges are over the top. But might there be other appropriate sanctions, particularly for students caught circulating such photos repeatedly? Any thoughts?

  7. JT says:

    The “sexting” behavior seems immensely self-destructive, given the permanence and portability of digital images. The pictures may come back to haunt individuals later in life in many ways. Recall the Juicy Campus attacks on individuals, and imagine that the anonymous posters had discovered sexted images of their fellow students. The pictures may fall into the hands of predators and encourage assaults. I see these dangers as applying to male as well as female students who engage in sexting. (Or do only girls do this?)

    There is a role for sanctions — fines, counseling — to deter and punish both the initial sexting and the forwarding of images to others. (Effectve deterrence, as always, would flow from a high likelihood of detection/sanctions rather than a draconian punishment.) As generally with youthful mistakes, I favor expunging any criminal: the sex crimes regime would accomplish precisely what the law should prevent.

  8. Christa says:

    Charging these children for child pornography seems absurd. If prosecutors generally don’t charge these kids for statutory rape for consensual sex, they shouldn’t charge them for child pornography for consensual image exchanging.

  9. Mitchell says:

    I believe that this is a situation gone completely out of hand. Child pornography, when presented to the mind, is a thought of a child being sexually abused or just being touched innappropriatly, unwillingly of course. Sexting does have a major negative side indeed. It has the risk of the pictures of the teen being distributed throughout cellphones and the internet none the less. I think the most the government should take this situation and every similar situation, shouldnt even involve the government at all. Just maybe a group to discuss and make teens aware of the dangers they might get themselves into just like they do with sex in schools. They teach teenagers all about sex in school. I would know, speaking I am a teenager myself of fourteen years. Infact, having sex is more dangerous then sexting.

    For example:
    – People can brag about having sex and maybe even sneak pictures of then while having sex and they can be distributed as well as pictures sent through sexting.
    -People can over react about sex situations and commit suicide because simply the whole situation and/or mistake has gone out of hand, as well as sexting situations can get out of hand and cause the same result of a teenager taking his/her life into their own hands like that.

    What sexting doesnt do that sex does:
    -Sex might give you an STD/STI. Sexting doesnt.
    -Sex might get you pregnant/make you a father. Sexting wont.

    Let me ask you this; how often do you see a teenager,who has had sex with another teenager, introuble with the law like this? Unless it was a minor and a person over the legal age, you never see it!


    And for those of you who are thinking ‘How could she know anything? Shes just a stupid fourteen year old…’, think about what I have said here.

    This whole situation has gone completely out of hand and I say we do something about it. Copy and paste this to other sites if you are with me!

  10. jaden van says:

    im a 13 year old male and im doing a project on sexting for english. i dont think theres anything wrong with sexting, its fun and safe. i do it all the time. i know some kids have had there lifes ruined because of the pictures getting sent to other people, but if u dont want people to see u then dont do it. i think puting kids on probation and other things like that is ubsurd. i have got alot of sext messages, but i have seeen twice as much nudity by accident on the interent. why isnt the govenment cracking down in the porn componies instead of the teenagers trying to have a lil fun. i think the resone ur genreration is so against sexting is because none of u guys ever got laid when u were younger, and u regret it. p.s contact me if u wanna sext (:

  11. jaden van says:

    face book me if u disagree i would love to hear your opinion, jaden van den Eeerenbeemt

  12. Kailie says:

    I don’t believe that sexting is a good thing. It’s easy for chomo’s to pretend to be younger.

  13. e man 508 says:

    I don’t really think there is anything wrong with sexting. If i was a teen boy i would want sexy pics of my girl, even in the 90s girls gave semi nude pics of themselves to boys