The Year in Teen Sexting Panic

From cops to Congress, overreactions to teen sexting have reached new heights in 2017.


Bonninstudio Westend61/Newscom

It has become fairly routine for American police to target teenagers for "sexting." Digitally mediated sexual experimentation seems much safer than direct physical contact, but our system has somehow decided that teens must carry the burden for the fact that some adults might find them arousing. So minors face child-porn charges for possessing or sending visual representations of themselves and partners their own age.

"Whether the police have the right to force your teenage son to masturbate in front of them in order to incriminate himself is a legal question few parents would think they'd have to consider," Cato policy analyst Jay Schweikert wrote last week at NBC. "And yet Trey Sims' legal guardians had to do exactly that. In an effort to prosecute the 17-year-old for sexting his 15-year-old girlfriend, Manassas police detective David Abbott obtained a search warrant authorizing him to take 'photographs of [Sims'] genitals,' including 'a photograph of the suspect's erect penis.'"

"The facts of this case are outrageous, but sadly, they're not the product of any single bad actor or law," noted Schweikert. "On the contrary, they reflect a criminal justice system that's structurally broken at almost every level."

Here at Reason, we've covered that case and countless (slightly less outrageous) others like it over the past several years. See, for example, "When Sex Is Not a Crime, Why Should Sexting Be?" (by Jacob Sullum), "The Misguided War on Sexting" (by Noah Berlatsky), and "Cop Who Sought Photos of Teen's Erection in Sexting Case Commits Suicide Moments Before Arrest" (by Robby Soave).

The federal government has gotten in on this too. In May, for instance, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of a bill that could subject teen sexters to 15 years in prison.

A few more sexting stories Reason covered in 2017:

Dick Pic Makes Teenager Guilty of Sexually Exploiting Himself, High Court Says
The Washington Supreme Court's ruling implies that adolescents who engage in consensual sexting are child pornographers.

Colorado Cops Say Sex With Teens OK So Long as There's No Sexting
In what his local newspaper is calling an "ironic legal twist," Ronald Lee Love faces a felony child sexual exploitation charge for exchanging explicit text messages with someone with whom it would have been legal for him to have had sex.

Iowa Prosecutor Backs Down After Threatening to Treat Girl's Selfies As Child Porn
Marion County Attorney Ed Bull promises not to prosecute a teenager who took pictures of herself in her underwear.

16-Year-Old Commits Suicide After School Cop Threatens Him with Child Porn Charges
"I think they wanted to scare him straight. Instead, they scared him to death."

Senate Could Make It Easy for FBI to Spy on Teen Sexters, Black Lives Matter, and Other U.S. 'Criminals'
FISA reauthorization would majorly expand use of warrantless digital surveillance data against Americans.

Ohio Republicans Move to Ban Sexting Between Teens
The bill is being pitched as a way to help teens avoid harsh child porn laws.

The State Has Stopped Trying to Wreck a Teenage Boy's Life Because He Sexted His Girlfriend (For Now)
Austin Yabandith won't go to prison or register as a sex offender. But his mistreatment isn't over yet.

Our desire to protect children has turned into perverse performance of protection in which certain members of the vulnerable class are sacrificed for the sake of arrest goals, sensationalist news, and political theater.