Criminalizing ‘sexting’ sends wrong message

San Francisco Chronicle

Ahmina James
March 22, 2009

“Ooh, look at this girl!” a classmate at Berkeley High School said to me recently, pointing at his computer screen. “Look at the picture she sent me.”

The girl in the picture was around my age and wearing red, skin-tight booty shorts and a small shirt that showed her cleavage. She was looking at the camera and sticking out her tongue, which revealed a silver piercing.

“What type of picture is this?” I asked. “Do you know this girl?”

“Yeah,” he said, “somewhat.”

“Somewhat?” I thought. She was sexting him and only somewhat knew him?

If you’re a teenager, you probably know that sexting is the newly coined term for texting a racy photo of yourself (or just a body part) from your cell phone to another phone, e-mailing it to a friend, or posting it to your online profile page. If you’re not a teenager, you’ll probably want to keep reading.

Sexting has gotten a lot of attention in recent months, partly because of a new survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which found that 1 in 5 teens admits to sending out digital nudes or semi-nudes of themselves.

That stat may shock adults, but most teens I know wouldn’t be surprised to hear it. They don’t always admit to texting the photos themselves, but everyone has a story of someone who has.

“Most definitely, I’ve experienced sexting,” said Jovan Thompson, 16. “I guess you could say I was the victim. I received pictures.”

“One of my friends from school was asked by a guy she liked to send him naked pictures of herself,” said 16-year-old Margaret Daly. “But when she said no, he tried to cover it up and said, ‘Oh, I was just seeing if you were a skank or something.’ And it was obvious that he actually wanted the pictures.”

“I had a church friend who did it,” said Tony Shavers, age 16. “I confronted her and was like, ‘Are you that bored?’ She told me, ‘Yeah.’ She had nothing else to do and was kind of nonchalant about it.”

But teens don’t know everything about sexting.

For one thing, many teens don’t seem to realize that there’s no guarantee that their risqué images will remain in their boyfriend’s inbox or on their MySpace page and that they can easily become one of the millions of naked teen photos floating through cyberspace to be viewed by complete strangers.

Most teens are also clueless about the legal ramifications of getting caught sexting. High school students in at least a dozen states have been charged with possessing and disseminating child pornography when police have confiscated their sexted pictures or traced one back to their phone. And if convicted, some of these teens may have to register as sex offenders.

“I was like, ‘Wow, you can really just go down for this!’ ” Jovan said about the possibility of getting slammed for sexting. It was news to Margaret and Tony, too. I had only just found out myself.

And none of us was really OK with it all.

First of all, charging teen sexters with child pornography obviously isn’t working as a deterrent for the simple fact that we’re not afraid of what we don’t know about.

It also flies in the face of certain inevitabilities: that sexting is the product of new technologies and that teenagers are full of hormones. Charging teens as sex offenders isn’t likely to stop the drive to find innovative ways to communicate, including innovative ways of sexting, anymore than it is likely to end puberty.

The spread of underage porn is a big problem, but sexting itself is just not that serious. And it’s not fair to punish us into our adult years – it can take decades to get off a sex offender list – for something so juvenile.

Instead, let’s have an awareness campaign about the risks of texting and posting our naked images – safe sexting? Then let’s let teenagers be teenagers.

Ahmina James, 18, is a reporter with Youth Radio, a youth-driven production company based in Oakland.

PG

Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.