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Sexting and the Law - Press Send to Turn Teenagers into Registered Sex Offenders

Sexting is a new twist on the timeless desire of teens and adults to engage in sexual expression. Sexting involves the practice of creating, sending and/or posting sexually suggestive images or video via mobile phone, email, or over the Internet, and everybody is getting in on the act.  More than one in three young adults between the age of 18-24 have sexted, and one in four teenagers have done the same. MTV-AP Poll Results.

Despite widespread and oftentimes breathless media coverage of teenage sexting stories, it is hardly confined to the under-30 crowd. The AARP Monthly magazine recently published Sexting Not Just for Kids,advising tech-competent seniors to try sexting as a way to spice up the over 50 love life--complete with a “sexting dos and don’ts” section.

Sexting encompasses a wide range of behavior. Most sexting is, by itself, consensual, intended to be innocuous, although naive.  For example, individuals who are dating might send each other nude pictures. Because, however, the pictures involved in sexting are digital, it is easy for recipients to distribute them in ways that the original sender never intended or imagined. Far too common is the case where jilted former lovers have sent nude pictures of their exes after a bad break-up to classmates, friends, coworkers and relatives. At that point sexting is neither consensual nor innocuous.

One may have any number of personal objections to sexting, but as long as sexted images are taken voluntarily and shared consenually, it is none of the government’s business.  A couple should be able to intimately share naked pictures of each other if they so choose. Sexting among adults is unquestionably protected expression under the First Amendment.

For minors, unfortunately, sexting is an entirely different matter.  Child pornography laws, originally designed to protect children against adult predators, inadvertently criminalize both consensual and non-consensual sexting where the person in the photo is under 18. The penalties are draconian. Under current Washington law, even any minor involved simply in consensual sexting with a person his or her own age faces felony charges, up to five years in prison, and mandatory sex offender registration.  One cannot understate the severity of these penalties when applied to the very minors the law was intended to protect from exploitation.

Because the child pornography laws were not intended to address sexting, the legal consequences for teens engaging in sexting are truly bizarre.  Devoted partners sharing an intimate photograph face the same punishment as a bully who maliciously sends a naked picture of an ex to the entire school.  Both the consenting teen couple and the bully are Class C felons under the law.  If all parties involved were 18 or over, however, there is no crime whatsoever.

Further, current law penalizes harassment victims in underage sexting cases just as harshly as the perpetrator. Take, for example, the scenario where a minor sends a nude picture to his or her partner and the partner later forwards the image to friends and classmates after the couple breaks up. The second sender is clearly the bad actor, but the law treats everyone involved as felons. In fact, the friends and classmates who received the picture are felons too, even if they never asked for the picture to be sent to them.

To make matters worse, prosecutors in this state and elsewhere actually have been enforcing these draconian laws against sexting teenagers.  In Florida, a 16-year-old girl and her 17-year-old boyfriend were both convicted under child pornography laws after taking intimate nude photos of themselves. Closer to home, Thurston County prosecutors initially charged 13 and 14-year-olds with felony distribution of child pornography after a sexting incident in a Lacey middle school. The charges were later downgraded to misdemeanors. Regardless, these cases are happening every day around the country, and kids really are being convicted as felony sex offenders for taking intimate pictures of themselves.

We know teens are sexting, regardless of whether they should be doing so. While we don’t have to acquiesce to such behavior, criminal penalties are not the solution. Education about the consequences of one’s actions and shifting social norms are the keys to curbing the tide, not incarceration. Moreover, with nearly one in four teenagers admitting to sexting, would any parent want to play the odds in believing that their child would never do such a thing? What if being wrong means five years in jail for your child?

Consensual sexting should not be a crime for teens or adults.  The frightening reality, however, is that our current child pornography laws coupled with modern technology have the potential to create a sex offender registry populated with the children it was intended to protect and a generation of teenagers who will reach the age of majority already convicted as child sex offenders. This is not what child pornography laws were meant for, and the time has come to address the issue rationally and reasonably, before it is too late.

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We know teens are sexting, regardless of whether they should be doing so. While we don’t have to acquiesce to such behavior, criminal penalties are not the solution. Education about the consequences of one’s actions and shifting social norms are the keys to curbing the tide, not incarceration. Moreover, with nearly one in four teenagers admitting to louboutin shoes, would any parent want to play the odds in believing that their child would never do such a thing? What if being wrong means five years in jail for your child?

Teen sexting and the First Amendment (girl to girl; boy to boy)?

Just had a First Amendment idea on teen sexting. Suppose a straight girl sends a pic to a straight girl or a straight boy to a straight boy (maybe just to make a joke of the statute -- sounds like the kind of stunt I would have pulled around 1960).

Fear it is going to end up in the hands of somebody else -- a homosexual male? Sounds a bit of a stretch to set the First Amendment aside for. ???

What legislatures had in mind banning child pornography was the harm done to the child by the act of the adult taking the picture of a naked child for prurient reasons. That is what the gargantuan penalties are for. That is what excepts child porn from the First Amendment.

A girl sexting a picture to a boy she can legally have sex with is not what the legislatures had in mind either count: the picture taking harm or the giant penalties. That would be enough for me not to apply the law to teens if I were a judge instead of a cabdriver -- without the First Amendment, just doesn't apply to what the legislatures had in mind. When sex is not even involved (how about those bruised behind paddling pictures that make the news) that should make three not to apply the harsh laws to teens -- the later the First.

Just a thought.

Ridiculous. They need to

Ridiculous. They need to update the laws on this, mainly because the child pornography laws weren't anticipating this. If there are two kids, same age, and especially same sex, along with it being consensual, it should not be illegal and no child should have to go through criminal punishments just for being curious.

Harsh Punishments??!! (for what)

Umm, I am a child myself. I am 16 and I feel that if I want to send a picture to my friend thats a risk that I am taken. Why should the law get involved? All over the world kids are doing it. So the question is will every child get locked up for such buffoonery(or 5 years for their actions)?? There will be no kids left. I am not saying it should be legal for minors to send nude pictures (sexting), but why such harsh punishments?

Reply to comment | American Civil Liberties Union of Washington

Hello, thanks for a rather compelling blog, I don't customarily add responses but really enjoyed your post therefore thought I'd
personally say thank you so much ~ Sophia

I was curious, so I sent a

I was curious, so I sent a nude pictuer to my boyfriend, and he did the same. We both are over the legal age of consent in our state(s) and neither of us have even distributed. It was a loving act, and we are afraid??? What law have we broken? He is not some 40 year old pervert forcing me into his sick submission, he is a loved one. Someone who I fully intend on marrying, and just becasue we made a mistake we are sex offenders? How so? If it is unintentionally distributed, it should be filed as a civil case against the distributor, nt a felony. Embarrassment, and maybe someday shameful, but I am young, and pursuing a teaching degree. Because I made a loving gesture, I am headed off to prison without hopes of accomplishing my dreams? Please help this. Please.

whats laws on making a video

My step daughter came over with a cell phone that use to belong to her mother, I snooped around in it and found out in the open a video of the mother playing with the step dads privates...   what should I do, is this against the law?

This law is stupid

I don't think this should be illegal, if you are over 16 and you can have sex legally with your partner than you are fully capable of having images of your partner. If they are distributed to others without consent that's different but just sending a picture to your boyfriend should not be illegal. I don't view it as wrong either. I think we all have our own views and our own minds and we can make decisions for ourselves. The government just wants control over everything and I think that is wrong on their part. If its a 40year old perv making a 16year old send him/her a pic of them nude then that is different and they should be put to jail. But honestly if I (17) wanted to send a picture of myself to my boyfriend (16) then why is that wrong.? Neither of us would forward them. We're both mature enough to understand the risk we are taking so why should we face felony convictions? I think this is stupid and wrong of our government. We're teens who are curious, leave us be. Now I understand that if one of the teens turns 18 it must stop until the other is also 18, that is understandable. But we can't learn from mistakes and experience life if we can't experient and make mistakes. Yes it'll hurt if someone were to see pics you sent but you live and learn. Don't send me and my boyfriend to jail because we experimented and sent some pics. That's our business not the governments.

BULLCRAP!

I'm 20 years old and a college student. We just got done with juvenile justice. In my opinion, if you can go on youtube and find videos of young girls, and im talking as young as 12, twerking what the heck makes law officials think jail time is going to stop it?! Not only are we showing teens that one mistake makes you a criminal forever but we are also being the biggest hypocrites in this whole situation. As if no adults have ever sent a picture to someone when they were young. However, once that picture gets sent to someone other than the original recipient or put on the internet, Then charge them. But dont sit here and lump these kids together and punish them. Teens and children are easily influenced treating them as criminals can be detrimental to them. Reform dont punish. Good job America.

Sex-ting

I know five women that got married under the age of sixteen back in the sixties and seventies. It was fine back then now all of a sudden having consensual sex is a crime. The human race hasn't changed that much in thirty years if anything the girls today are smarter about sex then they were when my friends married yet today if an eighteen year old has sex with his sixteen year old girlfriend he can get ten years. The same holds true if it is the girl that is older. We have to stop the slow criminalization of sex. Today it is teenagers going to jail for sex-ting but in the future it will anyone that has sex outside an increasingly narrow norm.

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sexting should it be allowed...

If children kept their bodies pure as God has spoken we would not have this ptoblem.I think if one wants to out right sin then they need to be prepared for the consequence either through the law or some day at judgement day.what is wrong with this world...

there are consequences in every thing we do

there are consequences in every thing we do,weather good or bad.actually I caught my daughter sending exsplisit pictures to her boyfriend.I was mortified.what if one of her siblings picked up the phone instead of me.If sitting it out in jail helps her see the point then so be it.if we allow some to do it then what makes it wrong for another to do the same,especially if the excuse is we are in love.what if you dont marry that some one then you shared a part of you that was meant for you and your husband on you wedding day

kids sexting

I agree that there definitely needs to be some changes to the laws. However when a boy sends nude pics of the penis and then asks for one back and makes very lewd comments and asks vulgar questions about how the pics make her feel, and no matter how many times he was asked to stop and shot down time and time again when he would ask for nude pics of her, and he keeps sending the pics over and over again. And then asks if she has pleasured herself, and the more she rufuses to engage in this behavior the more rumors he spreads about her being a lot of bad names and easy and having other boys harrass her too. Then thats when I think you are wrong. You say what if this was your child that gets in trouble over this? But im asking what if it was your child or daughter dealing with this at the age of 10 or 11?! Dealing with it from the other perspective...from the child being harrased by non consensual sexting, from the VICTIMS PERSPECTIVE?!

How will they find out?

EHow will they know that you're sending pictures? Isn't it illegal to go through other people's belongings without there permission? If you really trust your partner/boyfriend/girlfriend then they won't show or tell anyone that you sexted and sent pictures.

mistaken belief

the problem is that all of you think that the laws regulating sex are for protection. they're there for power. the registration has not prevented a single crime... ever. it has though devastated several hundred thousand lives. not only of registered "sex offenders" , but also their families. some families are forced to split up or live homeless when apartments and houses are refused to someone on the registry. the government was never intended to regulate the daily lives of citizens.

i don't think you didi any

i don't think you didi any thing wrong as long as you intended to marry

it is not unless she sent it

it is not unless she sent it too her friends

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