Are Teen "Sexters" Sex Offenders?
Eighteen-year-old Jesse Logan had talked about attending the University of Cincinnati. Logan sent nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend by cell phone. When the pair broke up, he sent the pictures to others, and Jesse’s torment began. She was called names like slut and whore by schoolmates, and some girls even threw objects at her. Eventually Jesse started skipping classes and in July 2008, she committed suicide.
Three teen girls in Greensburg, Pennsylvania sent racy pictures of themselves to three boys at their school. The six teens have been charged with child pornography and possessing or exhibiting a picture of a child in a sexual act. These are felony charges.
According to someone who worked in a Tampa high school, a male student there received video text of a girl masturbating.
In another case at the same high school, by the end of one day, the nude picture of a female student was sent to just about everyone at the school, including faculty and staff.
Results of a survey of teens indicate that most teens send suggestive images and texts to their boyfriends and girlfriends, but many others send them to people they want to “hook up” with. Referred to as sexting—sex and texting—the majority of teens believe that sending these messages can have “serious negative consequences”. Yet, some still send them. One of the obvious negative consequences of sexting is that “sexts” may be shared with many people other than the intended recipient(s). In fact almost half of teens say doing this is “common” and admit to doing this forwarding themselves.
Why are teens sexting? Of those male and female teens who have done it, most say they are being flirtatious, and half of the girls say they are giving their boyfriends a “sexy present”. Most of the teens surveyed believe that girls are more likely than boys to send sexy videos and photos. And why would girls be more likely to sext? The majority are doing so to get or keep a guy’s attention, to get noticed, to be fun/flirtatious, or to get a guy to like them, they said.
Teens are not the only people sending racy texts, pictures and videos. In a previous post, I discussed the fact that sexy text messages were evidence of “misconduct” by Detroit’s former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (having an extramarital affair and lying under oath) and a Tampa teacher (having sex with her students). But sexting by teens is what is claiming our attention, even if its prevalence is questionable. (A Google search of the term finds tons of articles on teen sexting; on the first page of results there was only one piece on a man whose wife was sexting someone else, but that’s the only non-teen related piece I saw on several pages.)
Maybe we’re more comfortable with adult sexuality, but many of us are skittish about teens as sexual beings. And of course many are concerned about the possible far reaching repercussions for teens of having sexy videos, semi-nude or nude pictures ”out there”. How will these images look to college admissions boards and potential employers?
Is the answer to block text messages? My mobile carrier, T-Mobile, does offer message blocking but I don’t see how this would help me if I was a texter but wanted to stop someone from sending me racy pictures. Message Blocking allows one to block one or all of the following types of messages: text, video, photos, IMs and emails. All of them! If I used message blocking, I couldn’t chose who to exchange texts with.
What does how we handle actual teen sex, as opposed to sexual photos and videos suggest on this issue? Although laws vary by state, in many states it is not a crime for older teens to have consensual heterosexual intercourse, unless one is older by a certain number of years. The permitted age range varies depending on the state. That means that in many cases teens could have consensual sex with no legal repercussions but could be charged with child pornography for sexting. In some states, conviction for possession of child pornography also requires that one be registered as a sex offender, for life.
How should we as a society handle sexting? What do you think of the legal approach of responding with felony child pornography charges? Presumably this response is meant to act as a deterrent to other would be teen sexters. But how well do various deterrence strategies work with adults? Many of our actions are not the most rational; this is a hallmark of teen life. For example, many teens believe their images will be shared but they still sext anyway. Consider who the victims of these sext crimes are. Or are these victimless crimes? Would you say that Jesse Logan was a victim? How about the teenagers in Pennsylvania? Are the three girls who sent the pictures perpetrators of a crime and the boys victims? How about if the person receiving the sext does not want it? Is that sexual harassment? What do you think?