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.

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!"

Bullying and forwarding, the very incidents that make sexting particularly damaging, are also consequences of this pervading sexual amnesia. Other girls, equally desperate for male attention, mask their jealousy with the moral superiority contained in accusations like slut! and whore!, while forwarding is not only an act of sexually charged voyeurism, but awe in the face of defiance.

Look who crossed the line. Look who broke taboo.

It's the formation of the crowd around the kid who threw the punch.

The recent legislation is only further proof of parents' unwillingness to sit at the table and begin the conversation. Whether it's rooted in intimidation by technology, detached ignorance, or complete ineptitude, by simply relegating authority to a higher power, parents are declaring they'd rather restrict than parent. But would an appearance in court have taught Annie a lesson any better than her own humiliation? Would it have eased the pain of exposure? Would it have kept the other girls from sticking dollar bills in her pants at parties? Would it have taught her that there are healthier ways to express her own sexuality? Would it have done any of the things that a parent is put on earth to do?

It certainly would have made a public example of her. Like the putting of the head on the post -- others be warned. But even this does little to curb teenage impulsivity or naiveté. According to a recent study at the University of Utah, a third of teens who have sent a sexually explicit photo did so despite their knowledge of the significant consequences they could face if caught.

Maybe a court-ordered education program is just what they need? A national poll by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital found that 81 percent of parents believe that teens who sext should attend such programs. On the surface, this may seem sensible, but do they really believe their own counsel to be so thoroughly incompetent? Do they really believe their kids -- if these programs are anything like the ones currently in place for underage drinking and marijuana -- are going to take the PowerPoints seriously? Bring home their certificate of course completion to proudly tack to their walls?

What we need is a cultural shift, not towards leniency, but towards an open dialogue, one that recognizes that sexual activity is a reality for most teens and that it's part of their nature to test the waters, however wantonly. Our hope should be to arm them with the right set of values to take along the way. As Dr. Donald Strassberg, the author of the Utah study, told me, "Until we learn to be comfortable talking about sex, to each other and our kids, we're unlikely to develop (as individuals or as a culture) a healthy attitude about it."

For parents to rely on, or even to allow for, such legislation is to sacrifice the fundamentally innocent on the altar of their own irresponsibility, for the sake their own comfort. Eroticism should be addressed in a way that is comparable to the sensitivity and intimacy of its nature, especially after such moments of painful mass exposure -- not hung out for display in the cold, impersonal air of a courtroom.

Annie has now realized the womanhood she precariously reached for ten years ago, but her scandal has yet to fully extinguish. She makes a point of discussing it with guys she's seeing because it's likely they'll hear about it anyway:

Do you know what she did? Who she is?
You were one of those girls?

"Then I felt like my whole world was crashing down," she tells me, "but now I kind of laugh at how ridiculous it was. We were fourteen. Kids do crazy, weird things."

Annie's mistake may have complicated certain aspects of her life, but her coping mechanism remains a simple one: "I've learned that the best way to handle it is just to be honest and open."