Fayetteville, North Carolina, cops have charged 17-year-old Cormega Copening with sexual exploitation of a minor—his girlfriend, who is the same age—because the couple sent each other nude photos of themselves during their relationship.
There's no evidence the photos were ever sent to anyone else, and police only became aware of them because they searched Copening's phone for unrelated reasons that haven't been specified. Even so, the teen—formerly the starting quarterback at his high school—faces decades on the Sex Offender Registry and up to ten years behind bars if convicted. He's also been benched from the team while Jack Britt High School investigates the matter.
Copening's girlfriend—who remains unnamed in the news articles—is also facing charges, ABC11 reported.
These teen-sexting witch hunts are almost always outrageous; they conflate child pornography with something far less sinister. It's perfectly normal—and wildly common—for kids to express an interest in sex. Should authority figures discourage underage sexting? Sure. Should they ruin kids' lives for doing it anyway? Absolutely not.
But Copening's situation is more outrageous than most. As far as I can tell, the pictures weren't shared with anyone else—this isn't a case where a boy texted a girl's nude photos to all of his friends and caused her some considerable public humiliation. The photos were private, and remained that way, until the cops got hold of them. If there's public humiliation here, police intervention is the cause.
Consider as well that Copening reciprocated with photos of his own. Does not a mutual, voluntary exchange of photos undercut the notion that "sexual exploitation" is a factor here? It's more than a little ridiculous to accuse these two of exploiting each other—although this is precisely what the authorities are doing, I presume (the specific charges against the girlfriend were not reported).
Lastly, it bears repeating that these teens were 17. If they had waited until they were 18 to send the photos, no crime would have occurred. Eighteen-year-olds are recognized as fully-autonomous sexual adults. Kylie Jenner, who just turned 18, has been inundated with requests to make a sex tape (indeed, filmmakers began making these requests even before she turned 18). The law, by its very nature, permits no nuance: you are 18, or you're not. But it's ridiculous to think that teens are magically transformed into adults on their 18th birthday. Many of them—perhaps Copening and his girlfriend—might be ready for mature relationships that involve sex (or, at least, sexy pictures) prior to the government's randomly-selected date.
There's one more disturbing angle to this story. If Copening is too young to send pictures of his own body, is he not also too young to be made a social pariah? Don't news agencies often withhold publication of the names of crime victims when they are underage? Copening is a crime victim, according to the police, but multiple local news agencies reported his name and the full situation. They reported on his suspension from the high school football team. They showed his headshot. They pointed out the likelihood that he will have to register as a sex offender.
The criminal charges and possible jail time are the worst consequences of the police investigation, but the smearing of Copening's name and ruining of his high school experience are also unfortunate outcomes—each of them much worse than the harm from a nude photo swap that would have never come to light if the cops had minded their own business.