Vermont gets it right again: adolescent sexting, adult prurience, and the need for some common sense

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.

19 thoughts on “Vermont gets it right again: adolescent sexting, adult prurience, and the need for some common sense

  1. 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…

    This is written from a position of privilege, power, and the infinite second chances that come from wealth and accumulated family social capital. I don’t think you’d deny your relative “bullet-proof” status after a long life of sexual mistakes – you are a very lucky and blessed man.

    Should we be telling our children that their mistakes will destroy them forever and that sending one naked picture will be the end of their lives? No; that kind of guilt and shaming is sometimes well-intentioned but very often misfires.

    But at the same time, for many people it simply isn’t true that mistakes get shrugged off and go into the “things I learned” file for later contemplation and reflective character growth. Many mistakes DO end lives, destroy hopes and dreams, and so on. And most certainly, many mistakes DO lead to soul scarring, and it is improper in the extreme to deny that reality to children in our care, in the name of letting them feel good about themselves.

    There is also an element of gender privilege here, both from social norms that give/gave boys much greater freedom from condemnation, and from biological realities. “Sexting” – more broadly, the rampant encouragement of adolescent sexuality and the promotion of experimentation over prudence – may not have a massively negative direct effect – but it certainly opens doors to the part of the house where that kind of shit can go down.

    Some decisions are irrevocable, and some consequences are permanent. We serve our children poorly by making pedagogical mistakes in EITHER direction – “sex = death” and “don’t worry, be horny” can both lead young people along the path to destruction.

  2. Hugo, I realize that you may disagree, but what do you find so wrong about saying, “If you must have sex, use protection, and respect the rules about consent and boundaries, and be aware about birth control. But really, it’s better if you don’t have sex till you are 1) a legal adult and 2) in a steady relationship. Most young people are simply not emotionally mature enough to make good decisions about sex.”

    I think that there are probably a lot of parents who give that message, and it seems like a perfectly sensible one to me.

  3. Hector, I’ve read Hugo’s post a couple of times and I really don’t understand where you get that he’s even talking about the same thing as you.

    He’s talking about the recent case where teenaged girls were charged with the crime of producing child pornography for taking topless pictures of themelves and sending that in a text message to a boy.

    Do you not think perhaps that being opposed to that blatant misuse of the law (indicating not a desire to protect children but a desire to punish teenagers for being sexual) is not the same as somehow disagreeing with your entirely sensible proposition?

  4. Robert is right, Hugo. I remember reading something on Feministe about young women lawyers, whose careers were gravely hurt because of several pictures. If somebody has such a picture and one day 20 years later you want not even run for a president, but “only” be a judge or some local political post or something else – be ready for blackmail. If you’re a man, people will talk about “wild oats” and be apologetic. For a woman the consequences would be much graver. Many employers already use Google and social networking sites and in the future it will become only more prominent. One’s coworkers and acquaintances (and potential stalkers) can use Internet too and think you’re a whore, ready for everything and “deserving” whatever they are going to do because of a nude picture. I am a very careful person and am afraid people think I exaggerate and will ignore everything I say, but imo I am 100% right. One young man I knew once showed different pictures he made – of streets and people and nature… and a picture of his former girlfriend posing erotically. You couldn’t see her breasts because of a T-shirt, but a zip of her shorts was open and you could see the underwear. I don’t know whether she remembers about the picture or would care it’s shown to people and both of them were above 18, but I remember thinking the picture was too private & severely disapproving. The best decision (and one I intend to follow) is to never take “immodest” pictures in the first place. You never know what can happen – He wants to blackmail you or take revenge? Show what “a man” he is to his friends? His cameraphone is stolen? Given to be repaired? And next day it’s on Internet or shown to people you know (or don’t).

    If a woman takes a nude picture at 16, she has no chance to be a president or even run for a high post in politics. Even if you don’t intend to work in politics, still saying “no consequences forever” is a lie.

  5. Just wanted to say that I don’t think there should be repercussions at 26 for taking a nude picture at 16, but unfortunately I don’t think the entire society will change. At least, 100% not so quickly that today’s teenage girls won’t suffer the consequences I mentioned. Yes, changing this law was wonderful. Let’s not forget that it’s still unchanged in all other states. I am for a political campaign for changing it everywhere, for trying to educate society to eliminate double standard (nude girl’s picture vs boy’s – let’s pretend the latter exists in the public eye or has ever hurt somebody’s career), for real sex ed and for Speaking Honestly To Young Women, stressing the possible dangers of the behavior and giving RL examples of each danger – how real women got hurt. Let them hear about the case of the lawyers I mentioned, let them hear from a parent who works at hiring people for a firm, let’s hear about years of anguish and pain of a girl, whose boyfriend sent pictures to entire school. I would suffer humiliation and pain for years and would be afraid even after graduation to see those pictures on Internet under my real name. Whom are you going to sue afterwards? Let’s stop pretending it can’t happen.

    Also it’s of greatest importance to have strict laws against people distributing such photographs of others without explicit legal consent. By “legal” I mean going together to a lawyer and signing a permission form once you are over 18. 15-year-old boyfriend sending his 15 or 17-year-old girlfriend’s photos to classmates and others should be dealt by a police. Strictly. The same about classmates, who continued to forward the photos. But not for distributing child pornography. Of course, enforcing won’t be easy and police would prefer not to deal with such “insignificant” matters. All the more reasons not to takeforward such pictures. Nowadays I read about a boy sending such pictures to many people and only the girl was punished, when it’s his fault (and her stupidity, but being hare-brained isn’t a criminal offense). I am not a lawyer and am not sure how it can be defined, but there is a way. Instead of a registration as a sex-offender, he (and classmates who forwarded) can be forced to do lots of hours of a community service, pay a heavy fine and make the boyfriend to have a police record for sending pictures, not for child pornography. If he does it again and again – stricter punishment.

    I know how much smaller mistakes can hurt for years, especially in childhood and teenage years. As an adult, I developed much thicker skin. Having everybody see nude pictures could make some girls descend into depression or even have suicidal thoughts. In a small town everybody would know and in general changing schools may not be so easy or always possible. I would walk keeping my gaze on a floor until graduation. That’s why I am for having reasonable laws with reasonably very strict punishments. So some low people (boy”friends”) would think twice.

  6. Hector, I’m seconding Katherine — where on earth do you get the idea that Hugo would disagree? Though I can imagine some who’d find your suggestion too permissive (the hardcore abstinence only/no information crowd), but I’m having trouble imagining many who would find it to restrictive. It’s a very reasonable position for parents to take, especially given that the age of consent (“legal adult” for the purposes of sex) is around 16 in most places.

    The position you’re describing is completely consistent with the belief that it’s insane to label a 15-year-old kid a sex offender for life because she sent a topless picture to her sweetheart.

  7. If a woman takes a nude picture at 16, she has no chance to be a president or even run for a high post in politics.

    Not a lot of folks thought we’d ever have a black man as president who admitted to doing cocaine regularly in college, either. What were once automatic disqualifiers thankfully no longer are — and women and minorities, too, are gaining what was once only a privilege afforded to affluent white males — the right to have their pasts not count against them.

  8. Some mistakes really are showstoppers. Drinking and driving can certainly be one that is. Some mistakes just make life tougher. And life is tough enough already. Charging a criminal sex offense for sending nude photos is ridiculous, but some type of minor criminal penalty would provide kids who don’t want to send naked photos of themselves an strong excuse to stand up to peer pressure.

    The other thing about this whole topic that bugs me is the inherent cultural bias of what qualifies as lewd. Why is a topless man not also “pornographic?”

  9. but some type of minor criminal penalty would provide kids who don’t want to send naked photos of themselves an strong excuse to stand up to peer pressure.

    Are you writing what it seems as though you are writing? It’s never good to make victims or potential victims the ones who are criminally or morally responsible.

  10. Ben-
    Back in the day, I used the legal penalties for underage drinking as an excuse to not imbibe. Peer pressure is intense at that age. Some type of minor penalty for dropping your pants, taking a picture of yourself, and sending it to the world just might provide a teen who feels coercion to pose sexy a “legit” reason to resist peer pressure.

  11. davev

    I think there are better ways to protect teenagers from being coerced by their peers into taking and sending nude pics of themselves.

    This would involve, as Hugo stated at the beginning of his article, having safe and responsible adults initiating conversations about sexting. these conversations would include making it clear that pressuring another person to send naked pictures of themselves in inappropriate, and (undoubtedly, hopefully) illegal. As is sexual harassment, as are persistent unwanted sexual advances etc.

    Also, if parents, teachers and youth workers are initiating these conversations, it means that, in the event that some is being pressured to send a nude picture of herself, that she more likely to turn to one of those safe adults and tell them what is going on.

    We also need to teach teenagers that it is never okay for someone to pressure them into doing something that they are uncomfortable with. This is vital. This would be much more effective, and tonnes more positive, I think than having some law that punishes the victims, and as Ben says, makes them feel responsible.

    Finally, I can easily imagine the person/people who is pressuring someone to send a nude pic saying “but your mum/the principal/the cops won’t find it. It’s just for me/us. It’s not like we are going to show anyone, promise.”

  12. davev, I think your use of legal penalties to resist peer pressure to drink is actually kind of rare; most people I knew, whether they drank while underage or used drugs or whatever, never mentioned the legal penalties as a consideration in their decisions. After all, hardly anyone in my crowd ever got arrested for such things (just one person for drugs). And there were other ways to resist peer pressure to drink that didn’t rely on penalties no one expected you to get. I think the same thing happens with sexting; legal penalties are rare and draconian, so they cause hardship to teens without actually deterring them from sexting.

    On the other hand, actually applying legal penalties to someone because you think she’s pressured and victimized? Bad idea. I’m with Ben and Dinana.

  13. What were once automatic disqualifiers thankfully no longer are — and women and minorities, too, are gaining what was once only a privilege afforded to affluent white males — the right to have their pasts not count against them.

    “One day in the future, automatic fire suppression systems will make it so that an accidental fire in your home is no longer dangerous – therefore, it is OK for you to smoke in bed today.”

    I think it is a positive thing that some actions which used to be shamed are no longer treated that way. It’s good that we can be realistic, for example, about former drug use by presidents, and not disqualify half the country from high (snicker) office.

    But the underlying idea that there are disqualifying actions is not going to go away, nor will there ever be a right to pretend the past didn’t happen, and doesn’t have a bearing on the present. When it’s material, your past should count against you.

  14. Davev, so a boyfriend betrayed a girl’s trust and now she’s ashamed and depressed. That’s very low, scummy thing to do and 16-18 year old isn’t 5 year old, he’s almost an adult and should be hold morally responsible as an adult. According to you, in addition to all the shaming (a grave punishment in itself), let’s punish a girl by police too and let’s let a boy go free? Did I understand you right? Wow.

    And criminalizing behavior to give “excuses”:
    a) doesn’t work in most cases
    b) is morally questionable. I would be strongly against it even if it worked. A 17-year-old should be able to stand for herself. Teachers may be should talk about that too, but a crime is a crime and police shouldn’t be used as kindergarten workers. You don’t make something that isn’t a crime (sending a picture to a boyfriend) into one to “educate” people. Laws should be reasonable and the guilty party is only a boyfriend in such cases. Btw, I would want it to be a crime, if somebody’s 40-year-old boyfriend sends everybody her nude pics without permission too.

  15. Why should everyone have to behave as if they might one day run for president? The standards for elected office can be strict and ridiculous. People are disqualified even if they don’t have a “past”; I’m pretty much out of the running here in the South because I’m an atheist, something that I’m not ashamed of and would never apologize for.

    I am very suspicious of people who go on and on about how horrible taking these pictures are because they could ruin a teen’s reputation or employment opportunities and such, because I think most don’t want teens to take erotic pictures of themselves, period, regardless of whether they are revealed in public or kept private as intended. And these people that see these pictures as a Bad Thing are so frequently the very sort that would think less of someone whose private pictures ended up in the public sphere. They are the reason why these pictures can ruin reputations to begin with! If everyone would just stop with the panty sniffing for 5 seconds and accept that everyone has a sexuality that is private, it would solve at least 80% of the problem. (There is no way around the fact that having people see your naked body without your permission is mortifying, but so is falling in the mud or getting walked in on when taking a dump or a million other morally neutral minor catastrophes.) If your erotic pictures that you sent a lover in private get out, you are a victim, not a slut. See: victim blaming 101.

  16. Did you guys actually read what I wrote? I said nothing about punishing the victim. Go with me for a moment. Let’s pretend that I am a crazy 16 year old who is proud of his body and wants to show it the world in its FULL glory. If I take an explicit photo and send it to several individuals WITHOUT their CONSENT, I have violated them. A 16 year old who goes up to people and flashes them would be subject to some type of corrective action. Many, many of these photos are sent to others WITHOUT their prior CONSENT. . . . I think a minor fine might be in order.

    At 17, the mention of losing my wheels for 180 days for a single drink while behind the wheel constituted a well-respected excuse.

  17. If cellphones and the Internet had existed when I was a teenager I surely would have sent naked photos of myself to my boyfriends and such. I would have loved that. And yes, it’s not a great idea. But we shouldn’t assume girls are usually coerced into doing it or whatever. And of course I agree it shouldn’t be illegal; that seems ridiculous.

  18. At 17, the mention of losing my wheels for 180 days for a single drink while behind the wheel constituted a well-respected excuse.

    Ah, well, drinking and driving’s a different matter, since that’s a law that’s actually enforced, for an act that visibly injures people. I was thinking of kids who weren’t driving but still didn’t feel like drinking; I both turned down drinks and had friends who did, at that age, and we didn’t appeal to the law.

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