Sexting Is Not Illegal. But Child Pornography Is.
Last Sunday’s New York Times carried a story that I believe all parents of teenagers need to read.
How Sexting Changed So Many Lives
Here’s how the article began:
LACEY, Wash. — One day last winter Margarite posed naked before her bathroom mirror, held up her cellphone and took a picture. Then she sent the full-length frontal photo to Isaiah, her new boyfriend.
Both were in eighth grade.
They broke up soon after. A few weeks later, Isaiah forwarded the photo to another eighth-grade girl, once a friend of Margarite’s. Around 11 o’clock at night, that girl slapped a text message on it.
“Ho Alert!” she typed. “If you think this girl is a whore, then text this to all your friends.” Then she clicked open the long list of contacts on her phone and pressed “send.”
In less than 24 hours, the effect was as if Margarite, 14, had sauntered naked down the hallways of the four middle schools in this racially and economically diverse suburb of the state capital, Olympia. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it.
Charged With Dissemination Of Child Pornography
Rick Peters, the county prosecutor, decided against charging Margarite. But he did charge three students with dissemination of child pornography, a Class C felony, because they had set off the viral outbreak.
After school had been let out that day in late January, the police read Isaiah his rights, cuffed his hands behind his back and led him and Margarite’s former friend out of the building. The eighth graders would have to spend the night in the county juvenile detention center.
The two of them and a 13-year-old girl who had helped forward the photo were arraigned before a judge the next day.
Charge Amended To Telephone Harassment
The New York Times reports that eventually a deal was brokered for the three teenagers who were charged. The offense would be amended from the child pornography felony to a gross misdemeanor of telephone harassment. Isaiah and the two girls who had initially forwarded Margarite’s photo would be eligible for a community service program that would keep them out of court, and the case could be dismissed.
There are many disturbing aspects to this story of “sexting,” or sending sexual photos, videos or texts from one cellphone to another.
Double Standard: Girls Are Sluts, Boys Are Show-Offs
One aspect is the double standard, the same double standard that plagues all women. A boy caught sending a phot of himself might be seen as a fool or a show-off, but a girl whose photo goes viral is likely to be branded a slut. Sound familiar?
The casual nature of this sexting struck me too. Again, from The New York Times:
How had the sexting from Margarite begun?
“We were about to date, and you’ll be like, ‘Oh, blah blah, I really like you, can you send me a picture?’” Isaiah recalled.
“I don’t remember if I asked her first or if she asked me. Well, I think I did send her a picture. Yeah, I’m pretty sure. Mine was, like, no shirt on.
“It is very common,” he said. “I’d seen pictures on other boys’ cellphones.”
They weren’t even dating, and she sent him a naked picture of herself?
Sexting Can Have Fatal Consequences
As the New York Times article points out, sexting is not illegal, but if it involves an under-18-year-old, then it may be child pornography. And it may have much bigger consequences, as Care2′s Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux explained here, writing about the sexting-related suicide of a young woman.
The reality is that teenagers are surrounded by highly sexualized messages, including endless songs and music videos that promote sexting.
So it is all the more important that parents stay in touch with their teenage children, talk to them, monitor their behavior, let them know that sexting is dangerous and demeaning – in short, that parents do some parenting on this issue that is not going away.
Parents And Teachers Need To Take Action
Adults in positions of authorities need to take action too. Many school districts have banned sexting and now authorize principals to search cellphones. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 26 states have tried to pass some sort of sexting legislation since 2009.
According to The New York Times, an Internet poll conducted for The Associated Press and MTV by Knowledge Networks in September 2009 indicated that 24 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds had been involved in “some type of naked sexting,” either by cellphone or on the Internet.
That is a scary statistic. Parents, please talk to your children!
Photo Credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital via Creative Commons