As has been widely reported, Vermont (the first state in the notion to approve same-sex marriage through the legislative process) is now considering decriminalizing “sexting”, the much-ballyhooed practice by which teens take and send explicit images of themselves using their cell phones. The absurd prospect of having teenage girls arrested on child pornography charges for sending topless photos of themselves to prospective beaux has encouraged the sturdy Vermonters to do the eminently sensible thing; as Salon writes, “sanity prevails.”
From the standpoint of a teacher and a youth worker, the furor about “sexting” seems tinged with both media hype and an unpleasantly salacious curiosity about adolescent sexuality. The chief concern I have is with the emotional well-being of the young people who do share naked pictures of themselves; embarrassment is powerful and regret is real, particularly when — as so often can happen — an image meant for one person is shared with many more. I’m also concerned with the dynamics under which sexting takes place: to what degree do the young women (and, more rarely, young men) who take and send these photos with their phones feel pressured to do so? Coercion, peer pressure, and individual agency are key issues in any discussion of teen sexuality. Safe and responsible adults need to be able to initiate conversations with teens about their private lives — and the misuse of child pornography statutes to prosecute adolescent “sexters” is an ironclad guarantor that those conversations will not take place!
The Vermont law, as proposed, wisely distinguishes between a 15 year-old sending a naked picture to another 15 year-old and a 15 year-old sending that same picture to a 35 year-old she’s met online. In the latter case, the law could still be used, as we would want it to be, to prosecute an adult who solicits nude pictures from a minor. The minor would not be charged. Make sure that adults understand that soliciting and knowingly receiving sexually explicit photographs from minors is a crime. Apply that law with a recognition that a relationship between an 18 year-old and a 17 year-old is not dangerously exploitative (despite the minor-adult disparity) in a way that a relationship between a 17 year-old and a 28 year-old almost certainly is. The law, in other words, needs to center the emotional, sexual, and physical safety of young people; it does not need to center the scandalized indignation of adults.
In January, in a post about the “right to a past”, I touched on this issue. I’ve also touched recently on the issue of adolescent resilience, in a post written contra the “one mistake will ruin your life” narrative. To the extent that “sexting” is a reality rather than media-hyped phenomenon, it’s important for us to recognize the potentially coercive aspects of this adolescent innovation. But it’s also important that we avoid the lurid, exploitative hysteria that so often accompanies discussions of teen sexuality. As long as young people know that adult concern for them is rooted less in an obsession with their chastity and more in an interest in helping them develop healthy, mutually satisfying relationships, teens will be open with us about their lives. If we emphasize that foolish or impulsive decisions don’t necessarily need to lead to enduring shame or familial rejection, if we emphasize that our mistakes are character-building rather than soul-scarring, we empower young people to make better choices and recover quickly from the humiliation that is, in the end, the chief danger inherent in the “sexting” phenomenon.
As Vermont, so the nation. May it be so quickly.