Are 1 in 5 Teens Child Pornographers?

A teenage girl snaps a photo of herself with some or all of her clothing removed and sends it to a teenage boy. How many, if any, crimes have been committed?

This is known as “sexting” among teens who text, and in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, both sender and recipient would be charged with serious child pornography crimes.

In the next state over, Ohio, eight teens who traded photos were sentenced to poll their friends and report to a judge what percentage of their friends realized that this was a illegal. Most didn’t know.

1 in 5 Teens Sends Nude Pictures – Is that a surprise, or a crime?
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released survey results that said 20 percent of all teens have sent a nude photo of themselves to someone else electronically. There are increasing reports of schools investigating this, using a pornography rubric.

Why Are Teens Sexting?

  1. It’s dramatic, sexual, and it bothers the hell out of the authorities. Can you see the attraction here?
  2. They have role models for it. Didn’t Paris Hilton’s star launch when personal sex videos from a PDA got loose? Other stars have gotten buzz this way too. Infamy and fame intersect, and teens get this.

The More Things Change
In the 70s, I lived near the University of Michigan when streaking was all the rage. (No I didn’t participate. I was five, for goodness sake.) Nobody put streaking freshmen on the sex offender registry, even though they did this in the public square.  In the 80s, more than a few new copy and fax machines created portraits of bottoms. Somehow life went on, and such incidents were chalked up as tasteless high jinks.

The Law Amplifies the Response to Teen Sexting by Treating “Childhood” Inconsistently
The legal waves that sexting makes seem amplified by how the ideas of “adulthood” and “pornography” are treated by the law.  In the US, the age of sexual consent varies by state and is often as low as 16. Indeed, some states allow for marriage as low as age 14, providing an functional path to consensual sex for 14-year-olds.

So there’s the rub. Pornography laws are made to protect children, with a bright line drawn at age 18, while marriage and age of consent laws start phasing in adult status as much as four years earlier.  For four years, kids can have sex and get married, but not photograph themselves naked.

Once they’re 18, they can auction off their virginity online, which makes Fox News apoplectic. These things never seem to go well.

Even Virtues Can Be Taken Too Far
We live in a nervous age.  People watch crime stories about special victims at bedtime. Once a sex crime has been alleged, even under the most benign of circumstances, authorities spring into action as our times require them to do.  Streaking was stupid; so was faxing tushes; so is sending nude photos to friends.

I’m hopeful we can avoid criminalizing this fairly benign stupid personal behavior. If significant number of teenagers were classified as “child pornographers,” it would seriously normalize the dangerous and unacceptable behavior of adults who exploit children.

Legislation idea #1: The parents of a child who sexts should have their cellphone accounts, terminated along with their child’s.

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