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


Past Member 2 years ago

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Magdalen B.
Magdalen B5 years ago

It would never have occurred to me to tell a youngster ."Oh, and don't send anybody a photo of yourself naked." Ye gods!

Amanda S.
Amanda S5 years ago

whoops, *genius

Amanda S.
Amanda S5 years ago

Take politics and government out of this issue. Parents are responsible for parenting, or have we all just thrown that silly old notion out the window? If you hand your child a lighter and a can of gasoline, it's your fault if they blow something up. It doesn't take a ingenious to know the risks involved with anything you give your child or allow it to do.

Amanda S.
Amanda S5 years ago

Didn't see any sexting issues when I was a kid. That's because teens didn't have cell phones! Any kid "privileged" and spoiled enough to somehow acquire one wouldn't have one with a camera.
Even then (prior to 2000), the outcome of equipping a teen with such technology was obvious. So the inevitable was fulfilled when ignorant parents catered to their kids desire for personal cell phones. Did/Do the parents actually think that their child would use the phone in a responsible, mature manner and stay out of mischief? Deluded.
How in the world did youth survive without wide-open access to the social media on the net and personal cell phones? Oh yes life was cruel, and we struggled for survival. SMH
If you're one of the vapid parents who insist that their child (under 16) requires a personal cell phone then I suggest you be reasonable and get a phone designed for children, one which you can monitor and is sure to prevent more problems than it causes... firefly is one such phone. Features and calling ability are limited to numbers you program into it. No camera, so you don't have to worry about them snapping pics of their private bits with it and sending it off to become viral.

Scott haakon
Scott haakon5 years ago

This is what is wrong with the laws. lets destroy lives early. Will it stop sextexting no. So why bother with a law that does nothing. Prejudice and ignorance that's why. Mom and dad did not have this technology. Neither did the "lawmakers". 14 is not a child either. now the lives are destroyed so we the tax payer will have to reap what the ignorant lawmakers and persecutor have done.
The US is very sexually repressed. This is not a case that requires destroying lives.

Nikolas Karman
Nikolas K5 years ago

the boyfriend betrayed the girls trust regardless of what kind of photo it was. the law should be about that and its consequences as we have far too much interference in our lives by others who carry out actions without our consent. the photo should require consent to post if its not of the person in the photo.

Ila Vazquez
Ila Vazquez5 years ago

I agree w/Susan & Norma. I think that sexting under the age of 21 should be made absolutely illegal. These are kids, for Pete's sakes! I'd take the cell phone away for awhile if they won't stop participating in this. If they are caught sexting, then parents also need to have serious conversations with them about what can happen to them as a result of this activity, & the embarrassment, degradation, & humiliation that can result.

Duane B.
.6 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Rose Becke6 years ago

it can lead to porn