Friday, December 12, 2008

The Crime of Sexting

Kids today live in a world that is totally different from the one their parents grew up in. I remember having a "sex-ed" course in seventh grade, Mr. Holland the shop teacher took the boys and Mrs. Witt the home-ec teacher took the girls, and we learned about the reproductive system for a day. Everything else you learned from your friends. Oh, and McAlpine's drug store had a couple of "photography" magazines on the rack, not that any teenagers including myself ever picked one up and looked at the nude models.

Kids today have the Internet. You can block it, monitor it, censor it, restrict it, but trust me there are times during the day when your kid has access to sexual information and misinformation beyond your wildest imagination. So where we grew up in an information blackout, they are growing up in a state of sexual information overload. Their problem is to figure out what parts of it are correct. If a boy expects his girlfriend, or a girl expects her boyfriend, to look like ... that ... and to do ... those things ... they are going to have to have their standards reset for reality.

On the Internet, not only is everything available, but everything is okay. People do everything without consequences. And lots of it is simply not what real people do.

The Internet isn't the only technological network out there, I think parents are mostly left out of this other one, and that is the world of cellphone text messages. Kids are constantly shooting texts back and forth on their phones, where parents can't see. The major difference between the cell-phone network and the Internet is that cell-phone content is almost entirely user-generated, there aren't "sites" with information, there is only peer-to-peer distributed communication. It is a hidden teenage world with its own written language and its own set of practices and norms. Lots of times there are photographs sent around, and some of those photographs are not exactly something you'd want your mom and dad to see. So are they criminals?

From Salon:
Remember the 15-year-old Ohio girl who faced child pornography charges for distributing naked cellphone photos of herself? There comes news that the charges were dropped, and the case will be dismissed if she completes a diversion program. But, most interesting of all, she revealed a typically teenage oh-by-the-way revelation during the hearing: Three of the male students who received her digital offerings also sent her back X-rated snapshots of themselves; now they might face charges, too.

That's not all in the way of teens being punished for "sexting," as it is now being called. Two teenage girls in Seattle were suspended from their cheerleading team after school officials discovered that they had taken nude cellphone photos of themselves that were circulated among students. One girl sent a topless photo to her then-boyfriend, which was "accidentally" leaked to other students; the other had a female friend take a nude snapshot, which also mysteriously ended up in other students' hands.

Now the girls' parents are suing the school, accusing "administrators of violating the girls' due process rights, needlessly sharing the photos with other school staff members and failing to promptly report the matter to police as possible child pornography," reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The school did not punish the students -- including a reportedly large number of football players -- who were in possession of the photos.

And there's more: Two 14-year-old girls in Livingston County, Mich., recently circulated nude cellphone pictures. In one case, the photo was sent to "as many as 200 people," according to the Detroit News. Nineteen students were suspended and roughly a dozen cellphones were confiscated by police. The other case is still being investigated.

There's a tendency to look at cases like these and dismissively conclude: Oh, well, those girls are damaged. That may be the case, sometimes -- but we certainly don't make the same assumption about a teenage boy who shares nude photos of himself. Not to mention, cases where the photos are discovered by school officials might be relatively uncommon, but I suspect that the practice of "sexting" is anything but.

It's hard to understand being very surprised at a girl taking a sexualized self-portrait, or even that she might want to share it with a boyfriend, or friends. Typically, this is not at all a safe or smart idea -- the Seattle cheerleaders being a case in point -- but we are talking about hormonally driven teenagers, after all. If we are shocked by this behavior, I think we're lying to ourselves about girls' sexuality -- especially those of us who were once teenage girls.

I wrote about this phenomenon a little bit last May, HERE. I couldn't see a way you can really stop this sort of thing in a world where everybody has a camera on their cell phone and teenagers are just like they always were. It is not impossible that a teenager would think of sex during the course of a day, and it is not impossible that a teenager would do something impulsive. And there's the enabling technology, it's all as easy as pointing, shooting, forwarding.

Now we have a tough problem -- as adults, we really don't want nude pictures of our children zipping around the adolescent community at the speed of light. We do not want young people to do this sort of thing. At the same time, you have to ask, is it appropriate to charge these kids with a crime?

You might have heard about the guy in Australia who was charged with possession of child pornography in the form of some drawings of the kids from the Simpsons doing some kinds of sexual things. Cartoons. Nasty cartoons, now the guy's a criminal?

Everyone is opposed to the sexual exploitation of children, but it seems to me the gray areas might overwhelm the black and white. As adolescents grow into adulthood they will express interest in sexuality, they will experiment and there really is no way to stop that, nor would it be desirable to try to completely suppress this aspect of their maturation. Because adults' role in the situation is usually to try to slow things down, kids are likely to conceal their experimentation from them -- the result is that adults, being cut out of the process, have little control over the situation, there may be little family discussion about it. How many parents reading this have talked with their teens about "sexting?" I'm guessing we have an approximation of zero percent there.

It seems to me that the road to follow is the road of complete and accurate knowledge. Sex education needs to be thorough, it needs to be explicit, it needs to explain sexual behaviors and their consequences. We need to get complete and accurate knowledge to our kids to counter the craziness they will inevitably see online. We considered it a great success when we could get permission for teachers to say, in response to a question in class, that homosexuality is not a sickness. In truth, we are vastly underpreparing young people for the expansive world of sexuality that is available to them at the click of a button.


Anonymous Robert said...

This happens more often than you would think or hope. It's alarming.


December 12, 2008 11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrea-not anon
My daughter- who is in college- has never had her photo on Facebook- it has been one of her converse sneakers and now a coyote or maybe a wolf. I do not know why.
We have discussed how these photos(not even the naked ones-God forbid- but the "sexy" ones that some young women post on the net) will be out there forever and can affect your future in many negative ways(unless your future is in reality TV- then it is a help).

December 12, 2008 2:11 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

I can appreciate how such pictures can negatively affect one in the future, but on the other hand its incredibly obscene to try to criminalize adolescents exploring their sexuality with each other. The real perverts are the adults trying to criminalize a natural part of adolescent life.

December 12, 2008 3:43 PM  
Anonymous old-anon said...

I tend to agree with Priya on this one, which is probably as historic an event as the Obama inauguration.

Child pornography laws are an exception to the constitutional guarantee of free speech and necessary to prevent children from being exploited by creepy pornographers.

If a minor takes her own picture and sends it around, unless there is some involvement by an adult, there is no exploitation. The idiots who tried to charge this kid should be treated like what they are: real honest-to-goodness jackasses!

December 12, 2008 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, in a world far, far, away... There lived a family of 5. Dad was an engineer. Mom was hell bent on insuring the world was good, and the 3 children were stuck within those two worlds. ONE of Mom's pet peeves was pornography. Her attempts to stomp it into oblivion included (for some unknown reason) the purchase of hundreds of magazines.
Her sons found the cache of magazines and, as very young boys, they took some of them and hid them within their bedroom. Soon enough, Mom found their hidden treasure and the blaming began.

Now who is at fault? The boys for doing what boys will do, or the Mom for having the magazines around?
Who would you blame? What would you do? This happened in 196x.

The outcome was that the older son was ordered to burn ALL of the magazines in a barbeque "pit".
Did Mom learn a lesson? Did the boys learn a lesson?
What is the difference between this and the internet?

ALL of the kids grew up to be responsible adults with careers and children that are fine... etc.
Was A LOT of energy burned on something so simple as kids learning about sexuality?
Kids will be kids. The problem is that adults SUCK at being adults. In eras gone by, how was history taught? Surely not by parents. They sucked at it too. Sex education is learned by any and all means available by every kid. You can try all you want to control how they learn, but think back to when YOU were a kid and then remember that you learned from your friends, you watched TV and movies. You found books and magazines. SO WHAT if the internet makes it a "click away". Its just another medium and your kids (and mine) will learn what sex is from any and every medium available.

The future is stomping our asses right now. When the internet can absolutely crash the infrastucture - take down massive news organizations with something as simple as CraigsList; when the youths of the world can organize resistance on short notice - currently the riots in Greece - and it sounds like - potentially - take down the government in a moments notice. These are POWERFUL tools that you and I only wish we had as 20 somethings, when we were hell bent on revolution. Get involved now. This world is changing.

Pull out your Beatles and Rolling Stones "albums". Crank 'em up and remember "back then". Your kids/ my kids - they want the same thing. A future.
They want homes and jobs and kids and stability. The same crap - WTF over - Its not a mystery
They read the news. It's bleak to them too.

December 12, 2008 11:01 PM  
Anonymous BigBro said...


Merry Christmas!

You're right, it's the adults that are the problem, not the kids. Then and now.


December 12, 2008 11:20 PM  
Anonymous old-anon said...

"Once upon a time, in a world far, far, away... There lived a family of 5"

This site attracts some truly disturbed individuals

December 12, 2008 11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

who would you blame, anon? The kids, or the mother?

December 12, 2008 11:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"who would you blame, anon? The kids, or the mother?"

blame for what?

I thought the story was lame.

A lame blame game!

December 13, 2008 10:26 AM  
Anonymous Aunt Bea said...

Mom is to blame for bringing those magazines into the house just like Tres Kerns is to blame for his obsession with gay porn. His home is probably full of it too.

Similar strange obsessions to possess what you claim to abhor seem to be shared by some of the Anonymi who post defamatory comments about LGBT people here. Of course Anon thinks it's a lame blame game as he no doubt considers himself blameless in his conduct here.

Thanks for finding and posting that article about the Appeals Court of Maryland on the Christmas tree thread, Robert. The ruling will be of interest to the many regular Vigilance readers who have grown weary of Anon's vitriol.

December 14, 2008 3:23 PM  
Anonymous Robert said...

I ran across the article in the little bit of newspaper I read this weekend.

Did the Post go up to 75 cents everywhere, or just in Alexandria?


December 15, 2008 11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's just your imagination, Robert

December 15, 2008 1:09 PM  

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