The debate over the proper legal response to revenge porn is complicated by the fact that the victim generally has voluntarily shared nude photos of herself with the perpetrator at a time when it never occurred to her that they would one day be used against her by an angry ex-boyfriend. But when the people involved in the production and dissemination of such images are under 18, there is an easy legal answer: What would otherwise be a noncriminal act, although possibly a tort, is now clearly a felony, as two students at Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls, New Jersey, recently discovered.
WCBS reports that a 16-year-old boy texted eight nude pictures of his 17-year-old ex-girlfriend to new his new, 16-year-old girlfriend, who threatened to post the images on Instagram. When school officials got wind of this nastiness, they contacted police, who arrested the two 16-year-olds for distributing child porngraphy, a crime that carries a penalty of five to 10 years in prison. Since there were eight pictures and each can be counted as a separate offense, it looks like the maximum penalty would be 80 years. If convicted, the two teenagers would have to register as sex offenders, making them subject to reporting requirements, residence restrictions, and a stigma that can ruin careers and relationships.
If that seems like a disproprtionate response, consider this: As WCBS notes, "the 17-year-old girl who was in the photos could also potentially face charges." Assuming she took the photos of herself, making her a perpetrator as well as a victim, she is guilty of producing child pornography, which is punishable by five to 10 years in prison for each of the eight pictures. When she shared those photos with her boyfriend, she committed eight more felonies, each triggering the same five-to-10-year sentence. That's right: In the eyes of the law, the girl who was victimized by the other two students is a worse offender than they are. Naturally, she would also have to register as a sex offender if charged and convicted.
Since New Jersey's child pornography statute defines a child as anyone under 18, the three students could have avoided all of these criminal implications if the girl in the photos had been a year older. No wonder Viktor Joganow, Passaic Valley High School's superintendent, saw fit to warn parents via a recorded phone message that they should "make sure to remind their children that taking, sending, or sharing naked pictures of juveniles is a serious crime." Parents should take the warning to heart, since they clearly cannot count on school officials like Joganow to exercise appropriate discretion in deciding whether to transform a disciplinary matter into a life-ruining encounter with the criminal justice system.
More on overreactions to teen sexting here.