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April 04, 2016

N.Y. Times Op-Ed: Don't Criminalize Teenage Sexters

NEW YORK CITY—According to a report to be issued this month by the religiously-oriented sociologists The Barna Group, titled "The Porn Phenomenon," most teens these days are sexting—61 percent of them, in fact, 51 percent of whom are girls—and 41 percent of teens have received an explicit text (sext), with 69 percent of that number being girls, with almost all of the sexts being exchanged between boyfriends and girlfriends. So perhaps it's not too much of a stretch to suggest that since the sexting is consensual between lovers (or would-be lovers), maybe the state shouldn't be prosecuting the senders and receivers? That's the theme of the op-ed titled "Teenage Sexting Is Not Child Porn," by Amy Adele Hasinoff, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado, and published in today's New York Times. The main problem, of course, as Hasinoff points out, is that while many of these teens can legally have sex with each other, which likely involves seeing at least one partner fully or partially nude, taking a photo or video of such person, either nude, partially nude or involved in an actual sex act, puts both the shooter and any recipient of the image/video afoul of the nation's child pornography laws. "The University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center estimates that 7 percent of people arrested on suspicion of child pornography production in 2009 were teenagers who shared images with peers consensually," Hasinoff reports. And while she notes that most prosecutors use their discretion in deciding whether to prosecute sexters as child pornographers, and some states either already have or are considering enacting laws which distinguish between sexts and child porn, as long as such consensual sexual image-sharing is recognized as any sort of infraction, more and more teens will find themselves with criminal records—and those, as the old cop TV shows used to say, "will follow them for the rest of their lives." "These new laws may seem like a measured solution to the problem of charging teenage sexters with child pornography felonies," Hasinoff notes. "However, once they have the option of lesser penalties, prosecutors are more likely to press charges—not only against teenagers who distribute private images without permission, but also against those who sext consensually." And what about non-consensual sexting? Hasinoff recognizes that some teens have been pushed (if not actually coerced) into posing for the sexts, and though only a small percentage of sexts—Hasinoff estimates about three percent—wind up being distributed among the sexter's friends and schoolmates (though some go much further) or used as "revenge porn," under the current legal system, they're much more difficult to stop. That's because once a sext has been reported, either to school authorities or the police, the person whose image appears in the sext may be in as much legal trouble as the person who took the shot and/or distributed it. And sometimes, as is the case with selfies, those are one in the same person. So what's the solution? "What parents and educators need to do instead is help young people learn how to navigate sexual risk and trust," Hasinoff prescribes. "Whether or not it is criminalized, we cannot prevent sexting, just as we cannot prevent teenagers from having sex. What we need to focus on is preventing acts of sexual violation, like the distribution of a private image without permission, pressuring a partner to sext or sending a sexual image to an unwilling recipient," adding later, "the first step is to decriminalize consensual sexting by creating exceptions in child pornography laws for teenagers who are close in age." The benefits of that plan should be obvious—but then again, sadly, there seems no shortage of ignorant politicians willing to run for office on the platform that the more kids we put in jail for sexted "child porn," the better off the country will be.

 
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