Newspaper article International New York Times

Teenage Sexting Is Not Porn

Newspaper article International New York Times

Teenage Sexting Is Not Porn

Article excerpt

Decriminalize consensual behavior. That way we can focus on real digital harm.

Teenagers who sext are in a precarious legal position. Though in most states teenagers who are close in age can legally have consensual sex, if they create and share sexually explicit images of themselves, they are technically producing, distributing or possessing child pornography. The laws that cover this situation, passed decades ago, were meant to apply to adults who exploited children and require those convicted under them to register as sex offenders.

Though most prosecutors do not use these laws against consensual teenage sexters, some do. 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.

Almost two dozen states, including New York, Illinois and Florida, have tried to solve the legal problems that surround sexting with new legislation, and others, like Colorado, are considering new sexting laws. These reforms typically give prosecutors the discretion to choose between child-pornography felony charges or lesser penalties like misdemeanor charges or a mandatory educational program.

These new laws may seem like a measured solution to the problem of charging teenage sexters with child pornography felonies. 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.

Given the extensive research that shows that young people who are nonwhite, low income, gay or transgender are disproportionately prosecuted for many crimes, there is good reason to suspect that laws that criminalize teenage sexting are being unfairly applied as well. As legislators have tried to cope with the legal fallout, they have also opened up more types of images to scrutiny: While child pornography laws apply only to sexually explicit images, many new sexting laws criminalize all nude images of teenagers, including photos of topless teenage girls.

A better solution would be to bring child pornography laws in line with statutory rape laws by exempting teenagers who are close in age and who consensually create, share or receive sexual images. Vermont tried to enact major reform to its child pornography laws in 2009, but abandoned the effort after a national backlash and settled instead on a new misdemeanor law.

In February, New Mexico passed a limited version of child pornography reform, which shields teenagers who receive a sexual image from a peer from facing child-pornography possession charges. Teenagers who create or share sexual images can still be convicted of child pornography production or distribution. …

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