A Three Rivers, Michigan, teenager is both the victim and perpetrator of a sex crime. He might land on the sex offender registry, and face criminal charges, all because he took an inappropriate photo—of himself.
The boy is unnamed in local news reporters, which note that he is under 15 years of age. He allegedly took a nude photo of himself on a girl's cell phone. That girl sent the picture to another girl, who sent it to another. Preliminary charges are pending for all three—the boy was charged with manufacturing child porn, and the girls with distributing it. A prosecutor is still weighing whether to pursue the charges.
Police Detective Mike Mohney told WBST.com that sexting is a serious crime because it leads to "bullying," and "real severe things like people committing suicide or violent crimes against others because they're so embarrassed about it."
Mohney's statement is a perfect example of the inherent contradiction of ruining kids' lives for sexting. If the goal is to avoid "severe consequences," why would they pursue charges in the first place? If sexting-induced embarrassment is a source of violence and suicide, certainly the risk of embarrassment is made much worse by branding the offender a pedophile—for abusing no one but himself—and sentencing him to the sex offender registry.
Criminal charges don't appear to deter other teens from sexting, either. As I noted in a recent op-ed for USA Today, a Drexel University study found that more than 50 percent of college undergraduates had sent sexts as minors. Some 88 percent of people surveyed had sent sexts, period. In other words, this is something that almost everyone is doing.
Authorities warn that the consequences for the underage are just too dire, but the most awful outcome is the one the authorities themselves impose on perpetrators: criminal charges. Can you imagine being a 14-year-old, trying to get your life back on track, after being socially stigmatized, expelled, charged with a crime, and publicly branded a sex offender? All because you took a picture of yourself?
Teens who create and share sexy photos aren't child pornographers. They are teenagers. To pretend the law can suppress their natural curiosity about their own bodies, and each other's, is to subscribe to vindictive madness and paranoia about human sexuality. These kids aren't hurting themselves—we're hurting them.