New technology brings new moral panics. Zippers on pants in the early 20th century scandalized older generations. (Easy genital access!) Cars created a moral panic among mid-20th century parents. (Our kids can have sex in those things and we can’t stop them!)
Cell phones and computers draw the same type of ire. The youth will use it for sexy stuff! They will be defiled! Panic!
So if new technology brings moral panics, what do moral panics bring? Stupid, stupid laws and court cases. First, prosecutors charged teens with child pornography for taking and sending naked photos of…themselves. As you can imagine, this didn’t go over too well.
Knowing that we can’t charge a “child” (is 16 really a child?) with pornographing themselves, several state legislatures created teen-targeted sexting bills. So, instead of a felony charge for the cock-pic, you may only get a misdemeanor in Ohio or Arizona if the sexting bills pass. A New york lawyer is seeking federal legislation on teen sexting. Vermont is the only state considering decriminalizing consensual sexting between teens ages 13-18.
Conservative Christian groups like the United Methodist Church are not happy about Vermont Senate Bill 125. Pat Trueman, legal counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund, says “It’s the only state in the union ever to consider legalizing the production of child pornography.”
[Point of order: a teenager is not a child. We make a distinction between children, adolescents and adults in our culture. Don’t conflate the terms for your own political gain. That’s just tacky. Not to mention dishonest and misleading.]
Everyone needs to take a collective deep breath and think about the right approach to a serious issue. We want to protect teens from making life-destroying decisions. High school is a tumultuous time and the mortification of nude pics passed around the school is very real and damaging. Recent sexting legislation debates in Ohio came about after 18 year-old Jesse Logan committed suicide after the colliding stress of a friend’s suicide and nude photos of herself circulating among other students at her high school.
But simply downgrading charges from felony to misdemeanor is not the answer. We are still telling teens that their sexuality is dangerous. This message we instill does not magically disappear when a teen steps into legal adulthood at 18. If we all agree that adults are allowed to sext each other even though it’s usually a stupid idea, legislative action against teens is the wrong move, especially considering how few teens do it in the first place. Teenagers are not the drunk, sexting, hormone-saturated maniacs the media portrays.
How about, you know, talking to teens? If you have not seen the LG teen texting safety campaign with James Lipton, go check out their “Give It A Ponder” website. (Or check out their collection of videos here.) This is a perfect example of non-punitive measures to deal with one aspect of this issue.
Beyond these PSAs, a good start would be open discussions with teenagers about sexuality, something that is confusing territory enough for adults. I spoke with a couple of high school students today about the sexting laws and one girl brought up an excellent point: “Say, like, a girl does it because she doesn’t want to have sex but she doesn’t want to be a prude. That’s not really fair that she’ll still get punished.”
That statement sums up the tightrope walk experienced by many teens. Do it, don’t do it, try to find an alternative that allows some degree of social acceptance, get in trouble all the same.
Thanks to @josephpred for alerting me to AZ Senate Bill 1266.