The U.S. law prohibits the possession, dissemination, and possession of child pornography (18 U.S.C. §2252). If a politician makes a speech upholding this law, most citizens would applaud him. Children must be protected to the fullest extent of the judicial system, right? But what if the socially and criminally condemned predator were a 14-year-old girl who decided to move to the next step in the relationship with her boyfriend and started to trade nude pictures via text message? An arrest of a teenager has already been made in Michigan, and similar cases are taking place in different parts of the USA. Apparently, the new “cool thing” for teenagers is not holding hands in the movies or exchanging hidden kisses at school, but rather engaging in what is called “sexting”, a practice that may seem inoffensive at first (after all, it’s the hormones that are talking) but that could have tragic consequences.
In a survey by the National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy together with CosmoGirl.com, more than 1,200 teenagers were asked if they have already sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves. The result confirms the concerns of moms, dads, and educators around the country: 1 out of 5 has already engaged in some kind of sexting, being the rate higher for teen girls (22%) than young boys (18%). It’s obvious why a father does not want his daughter to take nude pictures of herself and send them to her boyfriend. Nevertheless, what’s the real problem with sexting? One could argue that sexting provides a safe way for teenagers to discover their sexuality without risking STDs or unwanted pregnancy. It’s pretty harmless, isn’t it?
Jessica Logan’s case tells us the contrary.
Last year, Jessica, an eighteen-year-old girl from Ohio, committed suicide some months after her ex-boyfriend had sent her nude pictures to other girls in their high school. No longer able to stand the vicious comments she would constantly hear of herself, she decided to hang herself in her bedroom. In a NBC News report, Cynthia Logan, Jessica’s mom, declared that her daughter “was being attacked and tortured.” In grief, she says, “I just had a scan of the room, her closet doors were open. I walked over into her room and saw her hanging. The cell phone was in the middle of the floor.”
The horrific outcome of this case tells us that the problem of sexting is not the action itself, but what might happen after that. It seems that as soon as girls and boys have nude pictures of each other, a lovely, healthy relationship may turn into one based upon dominance, subordination, and manipulation. Tragic cases usually occur right after teenagers break up: a sense of vengeance seem to take over resentful girls and boys who make the atrocious decision to spread their partner’s pictures on the Internet or mass mailing them to other people.
The law prohibiting child pornography is being invoked. Teenagers are being charged with manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography – and many people are freaking out because the label of sex offender seems too harsh. Florida cyber crimes defense attorney David S. Seltzer, for example, does not believe that our child pornography laws were designed for regulating sexting. Commenting on the severity of the sentences, he writes: “A conviction for possession of child pornography in Florida draws up to five years in prison for each picture or video, plus a lifelong requirement to register as a sex offender.” How will these teenagers go to college with “sex offender” written in their record? How will they explain in a job interview why they had been charged with a federal felony? These teenagers are paying with their lives for a silly mistake they made in following a fad.
We don’t want teenagers to live with this stigma. Instead of locking them up, we should remove the “sex offender” label from their criminal record and have them spend some hours of community service. In addition, parents and teachers should alert their children about the risks of sexting. ConnectSafely.org, for instance, has some tips to prevent sexting, such as open dialogue with parents or trusted adults. The rigorousness of child pornography law should be invoked in cases that involve viciousness and criminal intent (e.g. Jessica Logan’s case), not when teenagers impulsively send nude pictures to their boyfriend or girlfriend.
Sexting can be harmful or harmless. The law must be able to differentiate one from the other.