Sexting – from norms to legality

Today’s topics: sexting. There has been a lot of recent news about sexting (sending lewd or sexual pictures via mobile devices). When sexting first entered into our vernacular it unsurprisingly incited panic from parents, schools, lawmakers, etc. There were of course the obvious reasons adults would be concerned about minors sending sexual images to each other, but the legal consequences became a great concern as well.  While a congressman who sends risque pictures may risk his reputation and job, a teen could actually face criminal charges.  Under current child pornography laws a teen who sends a sexually explicit photo of themselves can be charged with distributing child porn as can the receiver of the photo. There have been too many instances in which minors are criminally convicted and required to register as sex offenders as a result of an often innocent (albeit at times malicious) mistake. Ironically, it is the child porn laws intended to protect minors which are being used to potentially criminalize and harm minors by requiring teens to register as sex offenders for life. As danah boyd also writes,

 teens are “aboslutely flabbergasted to learn that it’s legal for them to have sex but not to take naked pictures of themselves. Because, from their perspective, the consequences of having sex are much more significant than the consequences of posing a naked picture.”

But as we know, the legal consequences for sexting can be just as devestating and long-term. However, this is starting to change.

Perhaps not that surprisingly the sexting conversation has recently shifted from merely focusing on teens and minors to also include adults’ technologically-mediated sexual practices. This of course could in part be a result of Representative Anthony Weiner’s recent actions (sending lewd pictures via Facebook and Twitter) which has helped shift the focus from “oh my gosh what are kids doing?” to “oh yea, adults do that too”. There’s a lot to say about sexting and a lot that has been said already, but here are few recent more nuanced and complex considerations:

  • Ethnographer danah boyd just gave a talk about sexting and the tech industry to a room full of tech entrepreneurs recently at the Read Write Web conference. She provides a lot of insight and context into “what are these kids thinking?!?!” and puts forth a call to action for the tech industry to create practices, policies, and tools which responsibly address the complexity of the problem. 
  • My dissertation advisor Craig Watkins wrote a short piece for the New York Times regarding technology and changing sexual norms of adults (“What’s wrong with adult sexting?”) in what he poses may be a new version of “do it yourself porn”.
  • Texas Governor Rick Perry just signed a bill that will reduce sexting to only a misdemeanor charge rather than a felony (effective September 1).

    These are merely three recent examples, but are also three examples of progressive thoughts and actions regarding sexting. Historically we can see that anytime young people visibly engage in activities which adults do not immediately understand, they are met with knee-jerk reactions intended to shame, restrict, and scare young people – sexting was no different. On the surface sexting may look “really bad” but it’s more nuanced than it first appears. As danah boyd tells us, there are many reasons why teens take/send these photos – fame seeking, boy/girlfriend acquisition, slut-shaming, revenge, flirtation, a form of safe sex – and while some are malicious, others are often healthy explorations and expressions of sexuality. And while these behaviors are more of a cause for concern with young people than they are with adults, the desires and motivations are nothing new. boyd also reminds us that prior to cell phone cameras, young people explored their sexuality with Polaroids. What is new is the searchability, replicability, and visibility of such images as rendered possible by new technologies. 

    What I find most encouraging is the productive shift from sexting as a teen problem and rather a recognition of sexting as a societal issue. I would venture to say most of the teens taking/sending pictures are not doing so out of perverse motivations (malicious perhaps, but not perverse). What is perverse are the adults who get off on pictures of minors. Thus the problem is ultimately an adult societal problem – not just a teen problem. Of course, this is not to suggest that we shouldn’t have laws in place to empower and protect minors, we should! And to be clear, I’m not saying we should be completely ok with teens taking/sending sexual photos of themselves – the emotional and social consequences can be detrimental and should not be dismissed or downplayed. But labeling a 16 year-old a sex offender for taking/sending a sexual picture of him/herself or a peer is going too far, and the behavior in and of itself is not a perversion. We should not be telling teens “your bodies are perverse and should never ever be photographed naked or in a sexual way”.  Thus we should focus on empowering teens to responsibly explore and express their sexuality while also enacting laws intended to protect  them from the perversions of society.

    Although I still struggle with criminalizing teens’ sexting without taking into consideration motives, context, etc., I think Texas’ new law is a small step in the right direction by at least reducing the penalty from felony to misdemeanor. However legality is not the only consequence at hand and more effort should be put into educating teens about the social and emotional consequences of sexting (in a way that doesn’t reify the idea that their sexuality is in and of itself shameful or perverse). And I appreciate Craig’s article for reminding us that it is not just teens who engage in sexting, but also adults. And while some people may find it strange, the motivations behind it are not new nor should it be completely stigmatized. And finally, as always, I love danah boyd’s call to the tech industry to step up and create practices, policies, and tools enabled to deal with the complex issue. It is too easy to attempt to stigmatize, pathologize, and crimalize the behaviors of young people. Sexting is in no way a “teen problem” and it is not an entirely new problem, but rather new questions must be addressed as a result of new technologies. It should be addressed in complex ways which protect, empower, and educate teens while also normalizing healthy expressions of sexuality – for both teens and adults. In other words, shifting sexting out of the realm of teen perversion, and into the realm of normal sexual expression under the right circumstances. 

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