Hysteria Over Sexting Reaches Peak Absurdity

By Conor Friedersdorf

A 17-year-old boy is forced by adults to submit to an injection that makes his penis erect. The adults command him to strip and photograph his genitals against his will. I am not describing the twisted crime of a registered sex offender. Incredibly, that was the scenario that prosecutors in Prince William County hoped to arrange or persuaded a judge that they hoped to arrange, according to reports in the Washington Post and at an NBC News affiliate. The boy was already forced to let law enforcement photograph his flaccid penis, the articles add.

What alleged crime ostensibly justifies this most intrusive and traumatizing investigation? The teen’s lawyer, Jessica Harbeson Foster, spoke to the newspaper: "Foster said the case began when the teen’s 15-year-old girlfriend sent photos of herself to the 17-year-old, who in turn sent her the video in question. The girl has not been charged, and her mother filed a complaint about the boy’s video."

The crime of which he stands accused?

"Two felony charges, for possession of child pornography and manufacturing child pornography, which could lead not only to incarceration until he’s 21, but inclusion on the state sex offender data base for, possibly, the rest of his life," the Post reports.  

After these press reports began appearing, law enforcement issued a carefully worded statement that doesn't actually contradict the attorney's version of events. "It is not the policy of the Manassas City Police or the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office to authorize invasive search procedures of suspects in cases of this nature and no such procedures have been conducted in this case," the statement asserts. "Beyond that, neither the Police Department nor the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office discusses evidentiary matters prior to court hearings."

This would seem to leave open a couple of possibilities: that while it is not policy to induce erections in cases like this, there have been efforts make an exception in this case (everyone agrees that no such procedure has happened yet); or alternatively, authorities never actually intended to photograph the boy's erect penis, but threatened him with the scenario to coerce him into pleading guilty to avoid it. 

The Associated Press cleared up some of the confusion today:

On Thursday, Manassas Police Lt. Brian Larkin said the Police Department will not proceed with the plan to take the pictures and will let a search warrant authorizing the photos to expire... The teen's aunt, who serves as his legal guardian, said she had not heard of the police department's reversal until contacted by an Associated Press reporter Thursday afternoon. She said she would be ecstatic if police follow through on their statement that they will no longer pursue the photos. 

 So a judge evidently signed off on a warrant to photograph the induced erection of a teenage boy! If ever there were a reason short of fabricating evidence to mount a recall campaign against a judge and a district attorney's office this would be it.

The earlier police statement said this of the crime in question: 

On January 23, 2014 Manassas City Police was contacted by a parent of a 15 YOA female juvenile who was sent pornographic videos by a 17 YOA male suspect after repeatedly being told to stop. 

Ambiguous is whether the 15-year-old or the parent told the 17-year-old to stop and what language was used. All of these facts would be useful to know, and it could be that the teen is guilty of harassing his girlfriend with sexual photographs.

But to charge a boy with distributing child pornography for sending images of his own penis to a girlfriend who herself reportedly sent naked pictures to him is absurd. It equates exhibitionism with one of the most unspeakable crimes in existence: adults raping or molesting children, recording the encounters, and distributing them. The utility and justness of sex offender registries declines rather quickly when kids engaged in sexting are listed alongside perpetrators of the latter crime.

Virtually no parent wants their 15-year-old daughter getting sexually explicit videos sent to her under any circumstances, and least of all if she asks her boyfriend to stop sending them, as could have happened in this case. One could hardly complain if the mother took her daughter's phone, blocked the boy from calling, and contacted his parents, and it's even possible to imagine more extreme circumstances in which a restraining order could be justified. But distributing child pornography? Those laws were not written with sexting in mind.

Emily Bazelon has a characteristically lucid take:

Maybe there is more to this story, and it will turn out that what this boy did is creepier than it now appears. But the question of consent should be key here. States are all over the map on how to handle teen sexting. What they should do is distinguish between consensual sexting, and (especially) sending out an image of someone who would not want that picture or video to circulate, or to someone who does not wish to receive it. As I’ve written before, “It’s not that the first kind of sexting is a good idea—it’s that kids shouldn’t get caught up in the criminal justice system for it, whereas nonconsensual sexting is a different story.”

If prosecutors want to take the position that great harm is done when a child's penis is photographed, even by the child himself, their investigation already seem likely to have caused more trauma than the original crime. It's good that they've been pressured into backing off their bizarre plan. But they should still be held accountable. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/hysteria-over-sexting-reaches-peak-absurdity/374206/