On a chilly Tuesday morning in November 2007, 16-year-old Alex Davis was taking a shower before school when his mother, Betty, knocked on the bathroom door. There was someone downstairs, she said, a New York state trooper who had come at 7 a.m. to the family’s farm outside Rochester.
“She said, ‘I think it’s about Laurie,’ ” Alex recalls. “My stomach kind of dropped, and I thought, ‘This is not going to be good.’ ”
The previous Friday, after coming home from football practice with a few teammates, Alex had exchanged text messages with Laurie, a 14-year-old freshman (whose name has been changed in this story, as has Alex’s and his family’s). While his friends played Guitar Hero on his PS2, Alex, captain of the football, basketball, and tennis teams, read a message from Laurie saying she wanted to be a cheerleader.
“I said, well, I needed a cute cheerleader this year,” recalls Alex, a deep-voiced kid with an open face, dark eyes, and the synaptic quickness of a natural athlete. “And she said, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, is this cute?’ And then…”
And then Alex made what he now calls “that little two-second decision to mess up my whole life.” He opened photos Laurie took of herself with her cell-phone, in her bra and panties, and then just her panties. Alex texted back, asking for more and noting that the reception on his Verizon LG phone was crap. No problem, Laurie replied. She would send the photos to his email address. They soon arrived along with a bonus attachment: a video clip of Laurie performing a striptease. Alex was happy to receive the images and says Laurie seemed happy to send them, “like she was willing and she wanted to show more, I guess.” That might have been the end of it, had the files not, as digital files will, leaked onto the Internet. Within a day after Alex saw them, so did Laurie’s mother, who phoned Betty to say, “You need to talk to your son.”
So Betty and her husband Bill sat Alex on the stump that serves as a stool before the hearth of the home where three generations of Betty’s family have lived and asked Alex, a leader of their church youth group and recipient of several good citizen awards, what had happened. Alex told them. He said he was sorry and wanted to apologize. Betty called Laurie’s mother, who told her that an apology would be insufficient. Alex texted Laurie to ask what was going on. She answered that her father really wanted “to lay down the law.”
And now the law stood at Alex’s front door, asking on behalf of the Genesee County Sheriff ’s Department how the pictures came to be distributed. Alex explained that he had left the email inbox open on his Dell desktop. His buddy had forwarded the images to his own address. (According to Alex, he hadn’t shown the photos to anyone or posted them to his MySpace or Facebook pages, so he assumed this was how they made their way onto the Net. Later he would learn he was one of four boys who had received snapshots from Laurie and from whose computers the images had, like mononucleosis, spread exponentially.)
The trooper printed Alex’s statement on a printer he’d brought with him and watched while Alex signed it. Charges, he said, were pending.
Not far from the Davis farm stands the George Eastman House, a Versailles-size mansion in downtown Rochester that includes displays of the Eastman Kodak Company’s myriad photographic inventions, including the Brownie camera. Released in 1900, Brownies were designed for youngsters and marketed with the slogan, “So simple, they can easily be operated by any school boy or girl.” Pictorial ads of the time show young folks preserving memories of outdoor games and train rides.
Eastman likely never imagined that young people, empowered not only with cameras but mobile wireless network nodes, would instead shoot naked pictures of themselves and send them to friends, who often return the favor. We’re not talking about a few exhibitionistic teens, but millions of kids. In a 2008 TRU survey of 1,280 teenagers and young adults (all of whom had volunteered to participate), 20 percent of the teenagers and 33 percent of the young adults said they had transmitted nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves, a phenomenon the media have dubbed “peer-to-peer porn” or “sexting.”
This practice might be considered relatively harmless, the 21st-century version of “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine,” if it weren’t for federal and state laws that deal harshly with those who traffic in child pornography. The federal statute criminalizes the production, distribution, and possession of images depicting underage subjects engaged in sexually explicit conduct; depending on the charges, it mandates sentences of five to 30 years in prison. Because the technology that allows sexting is new, age-appropriate punishments have yet to be hammered out. Instead, laws designed to thwart middle-aged people who prey on children are being applied to the children themselves.
Sexting cases are piling up in courtrooms across the United States. Three Pennsylvania girls, ages 14 and 15, who took semi-nude pictures of themselves with their phones and sent them to their boyfriends are awaiting trial on charges of distributing child porn. (The boyfriends are charged with possession.) Last October a 15-year-old Ohio girl was taken in handcuffs to a juvenile detention facility after sending nude photos of herself to classmates. “I wasn’t really thinking when I did it,” she told the court, which threatened felony charges that would require her to register as a sex offender, charges that were dropped when she agreed to have her cell phone and Internet use monitored. Two teenagers in Florida were not as fortunate: In 2007 a state appeals court upheld their convictions for producing child porn. Although the pair didn’t pass around the snapshots, which showed them engaged in an “unspecified sex act,” the judges found a “reasonable expectation that the material will ultimately be disseminated.” Were that to happen, they observed, “future damage may be done to these minors’ careers or personal lives.” They did not say anything about the potential impact on their lives from a child pornography conviction.
Alex’s case isn’t even the first to arise in his part of the country. Genesee County, with a population of about 60,000, has seen “a dozen, 15 maybe” in the last two years, according to Assistant District Attorney Will Zickl. “I’m glad they didn’t have this technology when I was in high school,” he says. “Once you put your image out there, it’s out there. God knows where it can go. As computer-savvy and Net-savvy as kids are, they don’t think about that.”
Or maybe they do, and they just don’t care. While it’s hard to argue that it’s an awesome idea for teenagers to launch pictures of their genitals into cyberspace, the sheer number who do so suggests that they don’t share the concern for privacy that held sway over previous generations. When they close their bedroom doors, it is not necessarily to be alone. It might be to hook up with the whole world.
Better Than We Thought
The call that Tom Splain took from Betty and Bill Davis was not the first the attorney had received about a kid caught looking at dirty pictures. “At least in this case, the fricking sheriff didn’t send out a press release,” says Splain, a big man in a dress shirt and tie. Between answering calls from several clients and a judge, he relates an earlier incident in which an overzealous police chief acted as though he had a big cyber-crime on his hands. The official alerted a Rochester TV station, which splashed a mug shot of the boy—bangs in his eyes, cheeks spackled with acne—all over the 6 p.m. news.
If there’s culpability on Alex’s part, Splain says, it’s that he did what might be expected of a kid his age: He looked at the photos and asked for more. “The thing to bear in mind,” Splain adds, “is she sent him these pictures unsolicited. He’s [got] hormones galore—hey, yeah, holy cow! It’s Christmas morning!”