On the Issues of Sexting

On the Issues of Sexting

The phenomenon of sexting is one of the more recent teenage conspiracies that has the media and active parental bloggers raging through the internet. Unfortunately, it really isn’t a phenomenon at all. It’s simply the result of a combination of dumb teenagers, unchecked hormones, and technology.

Sexting is the act of sending, receiving or forwarding nude or semi-nude pictures via cell phone texts. So why is everyone talking? First, it’s a perfectly legal activity, unless of course, the picture is of a minor. Then it becomes a felony. Apparently, if the photos are of minors, the act of taking the picture may satisfy the definition of creating child pornography and sending or publishing it to others may qualify as distribution. Second, a survey done by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reports that one in five teens have sent or posted naked photos of themselves. I’m not completely sold on these results since they are from a market research campaign and not academically reviewed. Despite this bias, the numbers keep getting re-posted by the press and the public generally accepts them, adding fuel to the fire.

Parents are unhappy with the survey results, and they are even more unhappy relating the word “felony” to their children. And that’s not the only problem. These charges create a classic example of what is becoming a common issue in today’s legislature: technology outpacing the law. How is it reasonable to take a law designed in 1982 to punish adults for sexually abusing children and profiting from it and adapting it to a 2009 case where a stupid sixteen year old girl thought she’d be cool if she sent a naked picture of herself to her boyfriend? Teens are not children, nor are they adults. Children are protected because they cannot knowingly give their consent, but teens can and do. Under the current policy, that sixteen year old girl and her boyfriend can be charged with sex offender felonies. This policy creates a situation where these teens are both innocent and guilty, victim and offender.

What is perhaps more interesting is why teens sext. Sexting in high school is intertwined with popularity, pressure from a boyfriend or girlfriend, and bullying. It is the last that disturbs me the most. In many cases, the result of high school sexting is the wide-spread circulation of the photo through the school, which leads to ridicule and especially cyber-bullying by classmates. Specifically, Jesee Logan of Cincinnati, Ohio, sent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend, who then forwarded it to friends, who then forwarded it to the rest of her school. She was subjected to intense public humiliation and bullying at school to the extent that she committed suicide. Because Jesse was eighteen, even the misplaced sexting-is-child-pornography policy couldn’t help or hurt her.

The media blames sexting for Jesse’s death when it should be blamed on harassment by her peers. Sexting has opened new possibilities for bullying and harassment, an old problem and the curse of teen life. If anything, Jesse’s story proves that sexting is a serious issue with complicated consequences on many levels. It deserves to be addressed on a case by case basis, ranging from malicious bullying to tipsy Valentine’s Day flirting.

As much as I think sexting is an over-blown topic, it does have serious consequences that are more complicated than we realize. The media loves sexting because it’s about media’s two favorite things: crime and sex. The state legislature needs to take a deep breath and re-evaluate their outdated policies. Schools only add to the drama. They are quick to call parents and police in an effort to avoid blame, but slow to address any bullying that might result. Above all, parents need to stop freaking out that their children are looking at nude pictures—our media is full of them. It seems adults in general are having a hard time with the issue of teens exploring sex and sexuality. In this country, it’s a scandal to directly address sex in any context, but we are obsessed with subtly hinting at it everywhere. Cell phones in the hands of teens have only complicated this backward ideal by making it harder to ignore what is already hidden in plain sight.

Eventually, our legislature, schools and parents are going to have to make a communal step up to address all the levels of sexting. Otherwise, teens will simply get better at not being caught. Sexting will get swept under the rug, becoming one of those things everyone knows about but won’t talk about, which leaves teens on their own to figure it out.

--Katie DeAngelis

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