Cell phone distribution is ever-increasing, we are living in an increasingly sexual consumer culture, and sexting has inevitably found its way onto most of our radars in some way. Is it an issue? I don’t know—perhaps we should ask Anthony Weiner. Seriously though, whether we are partaking, contemplating a moral crusade against it, or feasting on it as our local news scandal fix, it is abundantly clear that sexting is a tremendously prevalent phenomenon in today’s society. The larger issue, however (aside from Anthony Weiner and fellow pervs in the public eye), is that sexting has spread ominously into the realm of underage youth. Stemming from being angry irrational drama queens in an incredibly vulnerable part of their lives, witnessing immense peer pressure, and myriad other reasons, teenage girls in particular are dangerously undertaking sexting. This is certainly not all teenage girls, nor is it even a significant percentage. In fact, according to Kimberly Mitchell’s study, only 9.6% of teenagers had sent or received nude pictures to/of peers. Of those, only 2.5% actually appeared in the pictures. So why is this such a massive and incredibly publicized issue? Two words: child pornography.
Child pornography is, unquestionably an issue. People (parents especially) intensely fear the nightmare audience—52 year-old predators—getting their creepy paws on naked pictures of their babies. That is very rarely the case, but it is undeniably cause for concern. It is better for those pictures simply not to exist just for the mere risk of that occurring. But if we have such profound concern for the children who could be potentially victimized by such creepers, then why are our laws regarding sexting so unbelievably archaic and off-putting? Specifically, as it stands now, a teenage girl who takes nude pictures of herself and distributes them is typically charged with a felony. The ones whom the government sought to protect then become the very ones they victimize and destroy. A 48-year old man stumbling across a nudie pic of a 14-year old is devastating, but so is that same 14-year old never being able to have a career or a normal life as a result of her troubling criminal record. It’s a lose-lose situation. One might then say, “Well, then why don’t those teens just not do it?” That’s as good of a solution as exclusively promoting abstinence as birth control. Sexual deviance is unfortunately a fact of youth culture. Particularly so in the sex- and pressure-filled climate they live in today. So, it is patently clear that we should take extra precautions to ensure that it doesn’t happen and give kids reason and encouragement not to partake. For those who unfortunately do, however, there needs to be some kind of alternative.
Mitchell’s conclusion in her study stated, “subjecting youth to severe penalties for activities that would be legal for an 18 year old as long as no exploitation was involved is increasingly being recognized as draconian” (7). Clearly, this is true, as more and more states are jumping onboard to find reasonable alternatives. An NBC article from March 20th examines the new law in New Jersey around sexting and minors, which will be enacted in the next two weeks. Under this law, “teenagers will be provided an educational program rather than criminal punishment for a first time offense.” The article explains the benefits of this reform, quoting several entities, and drawing sexting back to the larger concept of bullying and abuse via technology. I obviously agree with the reform of the law. For the first time, the law will actually be true to its word on “protecting” young people. And I think that education is indeed the best way of informing and reforming people (in spite of that ridiculously cliché MTV commercial—compelling stuff!). That said, this article is also incredibly biased and flawed.
There is a side of sexting that never really makes it into the news. This would be the Hasinoff-esque perspective that re-envisions sexting as a type of media production, and moreover as a kind of female empowerment. The NBC article is quick to make a tie between cyberbullying and sexting. In fact, this conclusion comprises about half of the entirety of the article. In doing so, it completely discounts a) the fact that it is not always bullying—sometimes teen girls know exactly what they are doing and can/should take responsibility for it—and b) there can technically be a positive side of sexting, depending on how we look at it. Amy Adele Hasinoff, in her “Sexting as Media Production” article, identifies the ways in which sexting can be a form of sexual freedom for teen girls. I’m not saying I completely agree or disagree with it, but I do find it fascinating that this argument is almost completely ignored in the public eye. A news search of sexting will provide articles on subjects largely having to do with victimizations and horror stories of youth, but also how sexting is destroying face-to-face intimacy, etc. Why are we so quick to demonize sexting altogether, when such a small—albeit terrible—percentage of these cases are very seriously criminal? Education, whether before or after sexting incidents, is a great start for informing youth, I believe. For the rest of us, I really don’t know. People are just so weird.