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Teens Bare All On Cell Phones

Teens bare all on cell phones it may just be harmless fun as far as the kids are concerned, but prosecutors are charging them with distributing and possessing child pornograhy.

By Clay Calvert

WHAT HAPPENS when you combine hormone-raging teens with cell phone technology in a culture where Britney Spears flaunts her sexuality, and seemingly everyone wants to be a reality-TV star? You get a widespread and growing exhibitionist phenomenon called “sexting,” which has some parents and prosecutors in a state of panic.

Sexting is a cool and catchy moniker for a risqué, skin-baring blend of sex and texting. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy recently released the results of a survey that queried more than 650 teens, ages 13 through 19. The survey revealed that 22% of teen girls (including 11% of girls ages 13 to 16) had sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves. Teen boys also “sext,” but the percentage is lower.

The self-snapped images vary widely and wildly in nature. They may be mere topless shots of a girl standing alone in front of a bathroom mirror. Or they may be more explicit, suchas a close-up shot of the vagina or even a girl fingering herself. This gives rise to the somewhat-startling possibility that children today are becoming their own child pornographers. And that, unfortunately, is how some overzealous prosecutors are viewing sexting photos.

Pennsylvania’s Tribune-Review reported in January 2009 that three high-school girls from Greensburg “who allegedly sent nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves via their cell phones and three male students who received the photos are facing pornography charges.” The article elaborated that local police filed petitions with juvenile authorities, “charging the three high school girls with manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography. The three high school boys are charged with possession of child pornography.” The girls involved were 14 and 15 years old, and the boys were 16 and 17.

The irony should be clear: Child pornography laws were meant to protect minors, not prosecute them. Suddenly we’re attempting to convict our children for acting like, well, children. We’re making a crime of their immaturity and lack of modesty.

In 2008 a young man named Phillip Alpert was convicted on child pornography charges for forwarding to others a nude photo of his then-16-year-old girlfriend, who had originally sent it to him. He was 18 at the time.

Alpert is now branded, at least until the age of 43, as a registered sex offender in Florida. He cannot leave Orange County, Florida, without the permission of his probation office and must attend regular counseling sessions with hardened criminals who actually have raped kids. He stands as an equal with them under Florida law—all 125 pounds, five feet, 11 inches of him. Don’t believe it? Alpert’s record is posted online, replete with his picture, courtesy of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Registration & Compliance Unit’s directory of Sexual Offenders and Predators.

Lawrence Walters, a First Amendment attorney now representing Alpert, decries how law enforcement has dealt with sexting: “Given all the real child pornography that is not prosecuted these days,” he recently told me, “it seems charging youngsters as sex offenders for what has become commonplace teenage behavior is an obscene misuse of prosecutorial resources. In light of the economic reality we currently face, law enforcement dollars are being stretched thinner and thinner.”

Walters added that teens “are not being protected by locking up other teenagers and labeling them sex offenders. Those teens will never lead normal lives, will probably never go to college and will remain unproductive members of society for decades. That result, when combined with the tremendous expense of a typical child pornography prosecution, illustrates the absurdity of pursuing sexting cases as child pornography.”

During an interview at Walters’s offices in Altamonte Springs, Florida, Alpert thought that sexting may be a passing fad. “It’s going to lose its luster,” he said. “As our generation gets older, the next generation is going to see that it’s been done before. The kids of the next generation are going to find ways to do new things. When I have kids, my kids are not going to want to take pictures and send them to each other because that’s what their dad did. That’s not cool.”

But for now, the bottom line appears to be that technology and teens have simply outstripped, as it were, the law.

Child pornography made and produced by adults who exploit minors is reprehensible, and adults who exploit such minors should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. That’s why the United States Supreme Court has ruled that child pornography is one of the very few types of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression.

But sexting needs to be differentiated. Except in rare instances (see sidebar), the minor who produces it is not being harmed, either physically or emotionally, when she takes a sexually seductive image of herself and then transmits it to a boyfriend. No mean male is forcing the girl to take the photos; there may be peer pressure to do so, but peer pressure and teens have always gone hand in hand.

The answer, if one believes there really is a problem with teen sexting, is not criminal prosecution but informing kids about potential consequences. New Jersey Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt understands that. In July 2009 the Gloucester County Times reported on Lampitt’s “proposed legislation that would encourage education, not prosecution, for teenagers who send nude photos of themselves via cell phone and the Internet.”

Certainly treating sexting as a felony under current child pornography laws is prosecutorial overkill. Let parents take away their kids’ cell phones and keep prosecutors out of it. There are plenty of real crimes to worry about.

Clay Calvert, J.D., Ph.D., is the
Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. He is the author of Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy and Peering in Modern Culture (Westview, 2004).

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