For your own good? States move to penalize “sexting”

Sexting is the act of sending provocative or nude photos primarily via mobile phone. That’s your basic topless shot in the bathroom mirror and the faceless crotch pic in your inbox. Let me say that I hate the word “sexting.” I feel like it’s one of those words that sparks all kinds of inquiries and studies into the mind of the American teenager. Parents, educators, social workers, and others who have even the most remote connection to young people all want to know about the latest phenomenon taking over teens’ minds. I saw folks go bonkers over “mean girls” and “hook-up culture.” I was tired of hearing all of that and frankly, I’m over talking about texting. This new development is an interesting twist on the topic. Sexting is putting law enforcement in a difficult position as they seek to prosecute sex offenders without catching innocent (or stupid) teens in their nets.

States are turning to their legislatures for the statutory tools necessary to deal with sexting. It’s an issue all over the country but for now I’m focusing on Pennsylvania and Kentucky, states with different solutions to the problem. In Pennsylvania, the legislature is considering House Bill 2189 which would make sexting illegal for teens aged 13-17, including those who send photos of themselves. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association claims that what the legislature is trying to do is good – they are “trying to create a fix that would reduce the severity of the crime of sexting for teens.” Unfortunately, nothing in HB 2189 actually achieves this, as prosecutors still have the discretion to charge minors with felony child pornography. A felony, son. Harrisburg’s Patriot-News makes a good point,

HB 2189 does not prevent prosecutors from charging children with child pornography. Instead, it exposes kids to an additional crime, thereby widening the net and potentially bringing thousands more kids into the juvenile justice system, risking permanent criminal records, removal from their homes and disrupted educations.

Consequences of sexting would not be a mere slap on the wrist – a little community service, parents pay a fine, and you get your phone taken away – violations would land on one’s juvenile record. FYI, records of juvenile run-ins with the courts can follow you. According to the Juvenile Law Center (JLC),

an adjudication of delinquency may hinder a juvenile’s future plans to seek higher education, obtain employment, or enlist in the military. Increasingly applications for employment, college admission, and financial aid include specific questions about juvenile adjudications. Adjudications of delinquency may also result in ineligibility for public benefits including TANF and food stamps.

The JLC, along with the ACLU, has spoken out against HB 2189, asserting that the bill

  1. Criminalizes normal adolescent behavior
  2. Effectively creates a new status offense that undermines this country’s commitment, since the 1970’s, to remove status offenders from the juvenile justice system and may run afoul of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act
  3. Pushes more youth into the juvenile justice system, which has increasingly greater consequences
  4. Neither meets the intended purpose of protecting youth, nor deters youth from engaging in these behaviors
  5. Is an unnecessarily harsh step while many states are engaging in education programs and alternative legislation to address this issue
  6. Raises constitutional questions under the First Amendment protections of freedom of expression

Kentucky lawmakers have taken a slightly different, less harsh approach. As the law currently stands, teens can be convicted as sex offenders (much like Phillip Alpert in Florida). Teens can be prosecuted as child pornographers and placed on sex offender registries. Lawmakers are trying to remedy the problem with HB 143. Kentucky’s proposed sexting bill, HB 143, doesn’t go nearly as far as PA’s. Instead, the bill issues a $100 fine to teens who send, receive and/or forward inappropriate photos. Punishment would also include community service and education on the dangers involved in sexting. The focus appears to be on protecting teens from engaging in behaviors they might later regret and not solely on criminalizing their behavior. The bill would allow judges to wipe away charges when the minor turns 18 and have hopefully abandoned the practice altogether. The measure passed unanimously in the House and awaits the state Senate.

I just realized that I have not spoken to anyone 13-17 years old in ages. Still, I’m not dead so I realize that a LOT of sexting is going on. A Sex and Tech survey revealed that up to 20% of teens report that they have electronically sent or posted online a nude or semi-nude photograph or video of themselves. Among teens that have sent nude or semi-nude text messages, 66% of girls and 60% of boys say they did so to be “fun or flirtatious,” and 40% of girls said they sent sexually suggestive texts as a “joke.” Sexting can be have consequences, however. Information can live on the internet forever and when personal, private photos are leaked, feelings can get hurt. An extreme example is that of 18 year old Jessica Logan who hanged herself after her ex-boyfriend spread her nude photos around school.

Laws dealing with sexting are being considered all over the country. This could be a good thing. Teens have always lacked common sense but technology has created new ways for them to be exploited or for their actions to live long after they have moved on. The JLC eminds us that

prosecuting the individual who appears in the photo does not reach the true predators nor does it deter teenagers from continuing to send their photographs over email or text message. In  actuality, by threatening to prosecute individuals whose photographs are disseminated via electronic communications, actual victims of abuse may be deterred from reporting their abuse, thereby preventing their true perpetrators from ever being identified.

So long as legislation is crafted with that thought in mind and narrowly applied, potential harm will be minimized.  In the meantime, parents and concerned individuals should use some of the sites and tools dedicated to educating youth about sexting and cyber-relationships, i.e.,  A Thin Line, That’s Not Cool, and Ponder Beard.

Additional Sources: WLKY; ACLU of PA; Women’s Law Project;