May 28, 2012
**In case you didn’t know, but I’m sure you do, MetAnotherFrog has a book available for download. Get your Kindle version here or a print-on-demand version here.**
One of the major problems with public reactions to “sexting” is a complete conflation of nudity with sexuality and pornography. – Peter Cumming
“…the only way to stop teens from sexting is to take away their cell phones, and teens would sooner give up a lung.” Edward Greenspan
The power of that arguably dangerous term really hit home for me a few weeks back, when a good friend of mine (who happens to live in the US) called me to report that her 11 and half year old son had been accused of – though very fortunately not charged with – distributing child pornography. Here’s what happened…
After receiving five separate (and unsolicited) images a semi-nude photos girl his age via text, he made the mistake of forwarding them to a few friends. That’s when all hell broke loose. As the pictures circulated, so did the gossip in the playground, and the police were called in as soon as the principal caught wind of the whole mess. The result? More than a few scared 11 and 12 year old kids being suspended from school for a few days.
Now, as angry, embarrassed and scared as she was at the time she heard the news, my friend considers herself lucky, because things could have been a whole lot worse if her son was just a few years older based on the current child pornography laws in here state. You see, in the US, a child pornography conviction carries much heavier penalties than most hands-on sexual offenses. What’s more, anyone 14+ who is convicted of such a crime is forced to register as a sex offender for 10 years or more, even if they never spend a day in jail: making it virtually impossible for him/her to apply for a scholarships, get a decent job, live in decent housing, and do many other things many of us take for granted. (For proof of this check out the details of the Phillip Alpert case.)**
For the last few years the media has been inspiring fear in the hearts of parents everywhere by focusing intently about the ‘epidemic’ of wildly sexting teens and the criminal charged they may eventually face, based on a single but oft quoted survey, which reported, among other things, that…
- Approximately 20% of teens in the US have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude images. (Interestingly enough, none of the major media outlets have pointed out that this means 80% of teens AREN’T sexting.)
- 51% of teen girls list pressure from a guy as their reason for sending sexts. (Notably, the fact that 66% of teen girls claim that sexting is an activity they find to be “fun & flirtatious” is rarely mentioned in news reports.)
Of course such (adult) fears are fuelled by the fact that our culture is extremely uncomfortable when it comes to discussing adolescents and sex: particularly the sexual agency teenage girls. A fact that makes it very easy for the school administrators, police, prosecutors and judges alike, to overreact when situations involving teens, sexting and child pornography laws, that have not kept pace with youth culture and technology, arise.
Child pornography laws exist for a reason. But there’s a huge moral difference between a pedophile taking a picture of an 8-year-old against her will and posting it on the Internet and a 17-year-old taking a picture of her body and sending it to her boyfriend. – Margaret Miceli
The panic [about teen sexting] not only erases the line between stupid and criminal, it dilutes the real horror of child pornography – Ellen Goodman
As we adults slowly come to terms with the implications of a generation of young people living, learning and in many cases exploring their sexuality via technology, the big and arguably very scary questions, as posed by Professor Peter Cumming, society needs to consider are:
Should sexting be treated as criminal behaviour or just innocent self-exploration, the modern-day equivalent of Spin the Bottle? Or should we just be worried that our porn-laden culture is putting young people in precarious positions?
Though, it’s unlikely that such questions will be debated in any legislature in North America any time soon (which municipal, state or federal government representative do you know who’d be willing to put their seat on the line by becoming embroiled in a controversial philosophical debate about minors and sex?) it seems that cooler heads are prevailing in a few places. To date, several states – including Vermont, Ohio, Utah, Conneticut and New York – have recently moved towards aligning their laws with the realities of teenage sexuality and technology. With any luck, eventually the laws drafted in these trailblazing states will eventually become the rule, rather than the exception.
In the meantime, I’ll be right here, holding out hope that one day the public debate about the issue of teens, sexting and sexuality in general will be less about fear-mongering and more about understanding a complex social issue – cause something has to give sooner than later, no?
** In Canada, where to date no child pornography charges linked to teen sexting have been brought to court (though one 18 year old was charged with the possession and distribution of child pornography over email in 2007), it’s not illegal for two teenagers under the age of 18 to carry naked photographs of one another, provided it’s for private viewing only. Such images are considered child pornography only if they are distributed.