Why Sexting Laws Are Part of the Problem

Eroticism should be addressed in a manner consistent with the sensitivity and intimacy of its nature.


The video was barely a minute long. Three topless girls kissed one another and cupped their own breasts. They ran their fingers through their flat-ironed hair. It was entirely amateur by pornography standards. The problem was they were all fourteen.

Annie chose to email it only to her boyfriend of the same age. He told her he had showed it to the few friends who had stayed over that night, but on Monday the entire school cafeteria clapped as she walked through the doors. Wednesday, it was circulating throughout university dorm rooms around the country. Friday, it was in the inboxes of residents of California and on the local news.

Parents called the school and demanded the girls be kicked out. Their friends alienated them. The FBI knocked on their doors. One girl's family even moved to another state.

This was a decade ago -- before Amanda Todd, Jesse Logan, and Hope Wistell; before Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, or Reddit. Annie does not like imagining what it would have been like had it happened today, but it's likely she would have gone to court.

Like the first pair of gyrating hips to appear on television, Annie's email initially rocked the general public, but today sexting has emerged as yet another half- witted mistake, too often made by minors. And like with smoking and drinking and suspicious substances in little plastic baggies, the courts have responded.

Sex is banned. Sex is bad. Sex is awkward. Sex is not something to be discussed at the dinner table.

Since 2009, twenty states have enacted bills declaring sexting between minors a legal offense, with sentences ranging from fines, to community service, to educational programs. Six teens were arrested in Iowa last week. The laws were originally designed to prevent minors from being prosecuted under child pornography charges (and subsequently branded as sex offenders if proven guilty), but is any form of prosecution the right course of action? Or we are persecuting teens for being teens?

At twenty-four, it's easy for me to slip into "we" when discussing teenage girls, as the emotional reality of such a time is still fresh in my memory. We feel particularly unattractive. We dot our T-zones with flesh colored cream. We correlate our confidence to degrees of male attention. We want to be older. We want to be women. We covertly slip into Victoria's Secret to buy gel-filled bras.

We were, and continue to be, raised in a world of polar extremes. On one side there is the ubiquitous and hypersexualized media, and on the other, a generation of parents and educators who are either vocally puritanical, or worse yet, completely silent when it comes to discussions of sex beyond simple biology. In the absence of any form of realistic social guidance -- one that acknowledges their emerging sexual nature and deems it natural -- teenage girls are then forced to seek the balance themselves, a golden mean between Paris Hilton and the Pope, sex videos and Sunday School. "Slut" and "prude" are taken as equally offensive.

The balancing act is a terrifying one. Left with only the uninhibited dialogue of the Internet and their comparably misguided peers, young women must navigate through a world of sexual fictions, and when you pair this with their inherent insecurities, impulsive inclinations aided by technological ease, and need for reassuring attention, it's easy to make Annie's mistake. In a vacuum of any responsible advice, it's easy to see a "sext" (in place of sex) as that golden mean.

The cultural landscape itself provides the formula for such missteps. Sex is banned. Sex is bad. Sex is awkward. Sex is not something to be discussed at the dinner table. Whichever way you put it, by employing means of protection rather than discussion, parents serve only to repress, and as I'm sure we all remember, repression only ripens us for unhealthy forms of rebellion. I'm often reminded of Footloose's Ariel calling out to her Reverend father:

"When do my ears get old enough Daddy? When will you stop protecting me? I'm no saint you know! I'm not even a virgin!"

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Liz Kulze is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in New York magazine and on The Daily Beast and XOJane.

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