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The Misguided War on Sexting

America is taking a punitive approach to teens who send each other explicit messages—and it's backfiring.

To save kids from the dangers of sexting, we should stop trying to save kids from the dangers of sexting. So suggests Amy Adele Hasinoff, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver, in her counterintuitive but convincing new book, Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent (University of Illinois Press).

Hasinoff argues that the current political and social approach to sexy texts is a well-intentioned mess. Currently, sexting is seen by the right, by the left, by parents, by schools, and by courts as a danger in itself. Teens—especially teen girls—are seen as lacking impulse control and/or self-esteem. Awash in hormones and lacking in judgment, they send naked digital pictures of themselves out into the ether, where said shots are inevitably distributed far and wide, resulting in humiliation and irreparable damage.

Sexting isn't really all that new; teens have been exchanging explicit messages at least since the invention of language. But up-to-date smartphone technology makes the old seem unusual and frightening. Sexting has been framed as an issue of pathological identity: There is a certain person who sexts, and that person is broken, ill, undeveloped, wrong. Authorities try to deal with sexting, therefore, by dealing with the person who does it. Sometimes, as Hasinoff documents, this is done through various kinds of treatments. Programs focus on trying to boost girls' self-esteem so that they won't feel the need for validation from their boyfriends and thus won't text naked pictures.

Such programs have demonstrated very little success, but at least they don't directly harm teens. Other responses are more dangerous. Teen girls can be prosecuted under child pornography laws for taking nude photos of themselves. As one judge said, incredulously, "It seems like the child here [is]...the victim, the perpetrator, and the accomplice. I mean, does that make any sense?"

If sexting is framed as dangerous in itself, girls who sext become perpetrators. And that means the state can target them for punishment. Among other consequences, this means sexting laws become a way parents can use law enforcement to squash relationships they don't like. (Hasinoff points to instances in which parents used sexts to prosecute their children's same-sex boyfriends or girlfriends.)

Law enforcement has shown little ability to punish, or interest in punishing, the people who distribute teen sexts, or who violate teen girls' trust for the purpose of humiliating or damaging them. Courts often assume that any sexual image will automatically and always be distributed. The crime is taking the image in the first place, and naively, stupidly assuming it will remain private. Hasinoff points to one case (A.H. v. State, 2007), in which a judge convicted a teen sexter whose images were never distributed on the grounds that she should have known that her boyfriend would eventually send them around.

In fact, Hasinoff notes that "the largest and most representative peer-reviewed study," published in Pediatrics in 2012, found that only 10 percent of young sexters reported having a private image forwarded to a third party. That's not negligible, but it's not inevitable either. And perhaps it could be reduced further if America rethought its approach to sexting. Specifically, Hasinoff argues, we need to start seeing sexting as speech, or at least as legitimate sexual expression.

Most people accept that adults sext for a range of reasons. When surveyed, Hasinoff reports, younger people say they sext for much the same reasons: because it's fun, because it's sexy, because they want to stay in touch with an intimate friend, because flirting over SMS is in many ways socially safer than flirting in person. Parents, understandably, may not be eager to hear that their children are sexting, just as they may not be eager to have their kids date. But sexting isn't innately harmful or pathological or evil, and the worst-case consequences are less dire than for many other forms of teen sexual expression. Criminalizing it doesn't make sense.

If we start to see sexting as normal rather than pathological, Hasinoff argues, we can take steps toward making it safer. Rather than focusing education programs on telling kids not to sext, we could move the focus toward emphasizing that it is immoral to share private information without consent. School rules could try to target those who violate privacy, rather than punish teens whose sole crime is taking pictures of themselves. There are possible novel technological solutions as well. Images could be locked so that they can't be sent to a third party without permission, for example. Snapchat, a popular messaging tool which erases communications after they are seen, provides a possible blueprint. (There are ways to defeat Snapchat's self-destruct mechanism, but it provides at least a measure of security.)

"Though it may sound counterintuitive, affirming teens' right to sext helps protect them from privacy violations," Hasinoff argues. "The problem with viewing sexting as simply deviant and criminal for everyone involved is that it makes the malicious distribution of private images seem like a normal and inevitable part of sexting."

Yes, sexting can be bad and exploitive. Girls (and for that matter boys) can be pressured for nude images; kids (and for that matter adults) may make bad decisions about intimacy and trust. But sexting can also be fun, rewarding, and safe. Either way, criminalizing it doesn't protect young people; it makes them more likely to come to harm. You can't protect teens from sexual exploitation until you acknowledge that they have the right to make some sexual choices.

Photo Credit: David J. Green-Lifestyle/Alamy

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  • ||

    well-intentioned mess

    Whether it's a mess of good intentions or was certainly intended to be a mess... apt!

  • np||

    The current laws in raising in the age to 18 was a sold as a "for the children" package in the 80's when people were getting insane about it--same year drinking age was raised to 21 and warning labels mandated for music (see Tipper Gore) in the next, etc but the impetus were from prosecutors whose intent were much less sincere

    But as Hamilton points out in his sentencing statement, there is no indication that Congress had this rationale in mind when it raised the age of consent in 1984. Instead the congressional record indicates the reason for the change was that prosecutors usually are not able to track down the women depicted in explicit photos to verify their ages. With the cutoff at 16, prosecutors were having problems winning convictions if the girls depicted in the images showed any signs of puberty. Raising the age to 18, a House committee reported, "would facilitate the prosecution of child pornography cases and raise the effective age of protection of children from these practices probably not to 18 years of age, but perhaps to 16."
  • DesigNate||

    Fuck prosecutors.

  • perlhaqr||

    Ew. Not even with Bill Clinton's dick.

  • JRS1001||

    government's answer to any of society's ills - prosecute, incarcerate, and label as felons so they cannot get employment for the rest of their lives.
    Hey!- it works with low level pot users/sellers why not do the same with kids who are trying to find themselves sexually in a digital age?

  • ||

    Law enforcement has shown little ability to punish, or interest in punishing, the people who distribute teen sexts, or who violate teen girls' trust for the purpose of humiliating or damaging them.

    Maybe it's just a local thing, and I certainly don't have all the details on all the cases, but my exposure to sexting crimes can be summed up by "Round up the boys and charge them with sex offenses." with the occasional, "We need to make an example out of them." tacked on;

    Two boys, one girl caught, both boys charged.
    Twelve sext offenders apprehended... all boys

    Not to say that the girls are inherently guilty or innocent. Just that the notion that the boys never seem to catch flak seems grossly inaccurate.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    The girls are just the only ones the progs care about. Boys are males, after all, and thus Patriarchal Oppressors in training. They must be punished.

  • ||

    Yeah, a book that claims only girls are being prosecuted for these "crimes" struck me as *very* SJW. While I agree that the message of the book is agreeable by libertarian aims, it is irritating to see the claims just passively accepted and approval implied by a Reason writer (esp. one from Chicago - within a stone's throw of all the cases I cited).

  • ||

  • Brian||

    There's no better way to recover your own privacy and self-esteem than by public trial.

  • JRS1001||

    if the only tool you have is a hammer - every problem becomes a nail.

    government has no idea what to do and is showing how incredibly unimaginative it is.
    This is a issue for parents, not government- the only ability government has is --- no matter how bad a situation is, it can make the situation WORSE!!!

  • wareagle||

    why must everything become an issue for law enforcement or other arm of govt to handle? People have been doing stupid things for a long time and sexting is just a modern-day example. Maybe not sending out naked pictures of yourself would be a good idea.

  • JRS1001||

    Because, parents are abdicating their responsibility (lazy and stupid parents) and government wants to control all aspects of our lives(which is the nature of governments - to increase in size and influence)

  • Rich||

    There is a certain person who sexts, and that person is broken, ill, undeveloped, wrong.

    Indeed. Why does anyone *need* sexting?

  • JRS1001||

    or simply intellectually emotionally and/or chronologically immature.
    In other words, children and teenagers (and adults who act like teens).

    I don't blame teens for acting like teens - they are just trying to find their place in a hypocritical confusing contradictory world - nor should society hammer them for being sexual beings, which is what they are despite society's stupid prohibitions against it. Society shouldn't say "you cannot be sexual before the day you turn 15 or 16 and if you do have sex or sexual contact with a person 17 or 18 years old we will label your sex partner a pedophile for the rest of their life.
    Biology determines sexuality - not law.

  • Swiss Servator, Switzier!||

    Among other consequences, this means sexting laws become a way parents can use law enforcement to squash relationships they don't like.

    MUHUHUHUWHA!

    *sound of helicopter blades whirling*

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...we could move the focus toward emphasizing that it is immoral to share private information without consent.

    Why not just pass out condoms in school, while you're at it. Why not hand out the Kama Sutra and tell the kids to have at it.

  • Thomas O.||

    Apples and oranges. No one's saying that the school should offer nude photography seminars, which would be more in line with your speculation than "emphasizing that it is immoral to share private information without consent", which is a different and more universal matter.

  • perlhaqr||

    This seems like a good plan, Fist.

  • Rich||

    Programs focus on trying to boost girls' self-esteem so that they won't feel the need for validation from their boyfriends

    SEXIST!

  • Idle Hands||

    *Sextext!

  • Agammamon||

    "It seems like the child here [is]...the victim, the perpetrator, and the accomplice. I mean, does that make any sense?"

    To the state, yes - yes it does.

  • Rich||

    Moreover, aren't we *all* victim, perpetrator, and accomplice?

    /prog

  • Rich||

    only 10 percent of young sexters reported having a private image forwarded to a third party.

    Of course, 95% had actually *had* a private image forwarded to a third party.

  • Mickey Rat||

    And 80% do not frequent such places as 4chan.

    Would they necessarily know their images hsd been transmitted to a third party?

  • ||

    There are no good intentions behind this mess. This is the result of sociopaths in positions of power, be they cops or prosecutors, who will not hesitate to use panic and perform human sacrifices in order to advance their own career.

    Simple as that.

  • ||

  • Rich||

    Six year old boys ... have the same fascination with little girls as they do with kittens, snowcones, giraffes, and Fourth of July sparklers.

    Wow. The preversions of the commentariat pale in comparison to *that*.

  • sarcasmic||

    As long as there are pervs who enjoy "investigating" this sort of thing, it's not going away.

  • the other Jim||

    I don't know about sexting specifically, but history shows that telling teenagers not to do "x" because "x" is really, really bad, and in fact "x" is so bad we're making it illegal and we will freak out every time you do "x" is not an effective way to prevent teenagers from doing "x."

  • Idle Hands||

    Among other consequences, this means sexting laws become a way parents can use law enforcement to squash relationships they don't like.

    This isn't so bad, it saves me needless gun cleaning time and also I'm pretty the Montague and Capulets would have loved this out.

  • Agammamon||

    Plus there's having to take a couple of days off work at short notice to take a trip out to the Mojave.

  • Idle Hands||

    And if you have a weak back you have to listen to kid plead while he digs the hole for you.

  • BuSab Agent||

    There is a certain person who sexts, and that person is broken, ill, undeveloped, wrong.

    What's broken, ill, undeveloped and wrong is American culture's schizophrenic reaction to sex and nudity.

  • DJK||

    Agreed. I think the most likely consequence of the epidemic is the rising generation's realization that contemporary American culture takes a very Puritan view of such things and a radical shift towards acceptance of these practices. The older generations will hate it, but they always do, and will die off soon enough anyway. Look forward to a radically different view of sex in America circa 20 years from now.

  • Rhywun||

    What the hell is wrong with just telling the parents and letting them deal with it? This whole "oh it's just a normal thing (some) kids do" may be true but I'm betting the vast majority of their parents would disagree.

  • np||

    It's for the children man! We must protect young adults under 18 kids from sex!

    I suspect most parents actually support these laws. I recall in some of these recent cases cases parents were the ones that reported it.

  • Sevo||

    " I recall in some of these recent cases cases parents were the ones that reported it."

    It was either that or a visit from the CPS.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Well, if the parents are allowed to deal with it they might punish one or more parties, and that would be Truly Awful. Why, a child might actually get SPANKED. EVERYONE knows it's much better to put a child in juvenile detention, and give them a record.

  • ||

    Why, a child might actually get SPANKED.

    Hey now, I've even heard spanking has been linked with lower IQ and poorer scholastic outcome. Considering the rock solid links between drinking and brain cell death, secondhand smoke and cancer, fat consumption and obesity, carbon emissions and AGW, rock 'n roll and violence, violent TV and violence, violent videogames and violence, etc., etc., etc. I can only surmise that it's yet another SJW is-ought problem.

  • DJK||

    In comparison with the psychological well-being that results from either (1, male) being locked away and branded unemployable or (2, female) being an accomplice to the commission of (1). I'm sure that such actions are very likely to give rise to a generation of the psychologically well-adjusted.

  • ||

    This whole "oh it's just a normal thing (some) kids do" may be true but I'm betting the vast majority of their parents would disagree.

    I think it's less of 'just a normal thing (some) kids do' and more of 'just a harmless thing (some) kids do'.

    Fuck 'em if they disagree; parenting 'by the norm' is how we get to this one-size-fits-all pseudo-parenting in the first place.

  • Akira||

    It's the natural result of this attitude that the government can, should, and must solve every single problem, no matter how minor; no matter how much it isn't their fucking business.

    After all, if people got the idea that they can peacefully resolve conflicts on their own, they might start to question the idea of having such a powerful and intrusive government. And we can't have that, can we?

  • bvandyke||

    Here is some advice parents: Talk to your kids about it. Duh. Be involved (even when they act like they don't want you to be). Don't be all authoritarian. As "the other Jim" said, saying it is a bad, you can't do it, ever will just make many do it to see (I know that is how I worked as teenager, wait, even now....).

    A little advice to your kids and relating to them a little goes a long way. They may not act like it but many times they listen.

    And yes, I have a teenage boy and the current attitude that he is the most evil, vile thing to walk the earth scares me. I talk to him frequently about minding what he does because of the attitude of people. I don't tell him things are forbidden, just talk about making good choices and what the consequences are for bad choices.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Humans, which includes kids and people, will never be flawless. Breaking any number of a slew of the more mundane societal rules should be met with zero intolerance, frankly. And my brain just fucking puked repetitive drivel into my fingers for the thousandth time.

  • Robert||

    This is probably going to require court action. Pornography in the USA was determined by courts to be an item of freedom of speech under state & federal constitutional guarantees of such, except where the content is obscene, and most sexts would probably not be considered obscene. However, courts later determined kiddy porn to be an exception because it wasn't the communication that was deemed criminal, but the victimiz'n of the minor subject. Later court rulings furthered that principle by determining that there had to be an actual subject, not a fictional one. So now we need another ruling along those lines saying that there is no victimiz'n where the subject is also the pornographer.

    It seems too daunting to get this reform legislatively, because in advance of the fact everyone assumes their own child would be a victim & not a perpetrator, & for the reasons given in this book review.

  • JRS1001||

    sex isn't obscene - violence, war, cruelty, hunger/extreme poverty is. All of which is largely caused by failed government policies.

  • DJK||

    Thank the Christians (or at least those associated with the Vatican). It's going to take awhile to undo the two millennia of damage they've done in this realm. Fortunately, we're off to a pretty good start. But there's still a lot of work to be done.

  • DJK||

    Before I get flamed for this, I suppose it's most sects of the Abrahamic religions, not just Catholics.

  • JRS1001||

    Its not just the Catholics or even Christianity. Islam has some extremely fucked up notions of sexuality and gender roles that go far beyond Christianity.

    The thing is that sexuality is not going to be suppressed no matter what the law says, Children and teens are inherently sexual beings(whether we are comfortable with that or not) and are being exposed to more adult sexual ideas and imagery at increasingly earlier ages. Technology is also advancing - making the acquisition of ideas easier and personal [removed]sexual and otherwise) easier and more pervasive. Government and law cannot keep up but still attempts to use the tools of the past (prosecution) in a vain attempt to control the situation.
    The only people in any sort of position to make an impact is parents, and many of them have simply given up trying to regulate their kids lives in any meaningful way.

  • JRS1001||

    word the removed was "expression" why reason chose to remove that word is beyond my understanding much less why a website supposedly dedicated to libertarian principles would be editing what people post

  • PH2050||

    I've never seen an edited post here except for when infamous posters (like Mary Stack) have their dreck removed. Strange.

  • ||

    Thank the Christians (or at least those associated with the Vatican). It's going to take awhile to undo the two millennia of damage they've done in this realm.

    I wouldn't call this outright baloney as somebody was responsible for getting the "naked = naughty" ball rolling, but it's getting close to the point where this excuse needs to be abandoned. Religiousness is rising, but organized Christianity is shrinking in this country.

    The child persecution issue has as much or more to do with the sexual revolution and the rise of single-child households. When every snowflake is special, any impurity, from any source, must be purged at all costs. The sexting paranoia is along the lines of reporting parents to CPS them for allowing their kids to know what cannibus is, imitate handguns with pop-tarts, and arresting kids for having e-cig 'paraphenelia'.

    At this point, it has as much to do with Christianity/Puritanism as the AGW or anti-GMO movement does with science.

  • DJK||

    Meh. The same argument could be made for the legalization of prostitution. Yet I don't see the masses getting up and demanding an end to the prohibition of such acts. I could see the debate going either way: mainstream acceptance or further criminalization. I don't think there's enough evidence to decide which way the chips will fall.

  • JRS1001||

    its coming- it has already happened in Europe with the drug and prostitution laws being liberalized.
    It will happen here in the US as well. People are fed up with having their lives run by an incompetent government. That is why more people are becoming libertarian, especially young people who are disenchanted with the progressives(socialists/fascists) in both political parties.

  • IceTrey||

    The real problem is that it's not necessarily illegal to take nude photos of children. The photos have to be sexual in nature.

  • JRS1001||

    no the problem is that government is getting involved. This is a responsibility of the parents to take care of, not the government. Because many parents are abdicating the responsibility to teach their kids anything much less what is appropriate expressions of their sexuality; government is filling the void and like everything government does - it makes matters worse.

  • BambiB||

    Rather than focusing education programs on telling kids not to sext, we could move the focus toward emphasizing that it is immoral to share private information without consent.

    The government could never send this message because the government is ALL ABOUT sharing your private information without your consent. And the government isn't immoral... is it???

  • Lucusloc||

    Once you send someone a picture, they own that picture. There is no way to both allow them to see it on a device they control and also prevent them from making copies to distribute. Snapchat is not insecure due to implementation, it is insecure due to fundamental principles. The rule is to not send confidential data to someone you do not trust, period.

  • ||

    What I don't get is that age of consent laws are predicated on the young not having the requisite mental/moral development /awareness to understand the consequences of their actions. If so, then they can't have the requisite awareness to have be legally culpable for committing a crime.

    So, either they are competent enough to be held responsible for the crime of 'sexting' and thus have the requisite competence to be able to choose to sext, or they don't and can't be punished for their 'crime'.

    What kind of a hypocrite is that DA? Is his entire concept of the law 'fuck you, that's what's written here' rather than some sort of moral/philosophical code?

    Well, OK, yeah, obviously it is...

  • ||

    So becoming prosecutor is now the perfect job for a pedophile. You don't even need a complaining witness. The law is on your side. You get to look on those phones. You have to look on those phones. You can't you go to jail. It is your job examine all that ...... lovely evidence. Ahhhhh! Oh...... I'll save this one for, you know disclosure. And this one I'll keep for myself.

  • ||

    my neighbor's aunt makes $86 every hour on the internet . She has been without work for 7 months but last month her paycheck was $15501 just working on the internet for a few hours
    ...... ✹✹✹✹✹✹ www.netjob80.com

  • Richard Stallman||

    For a program to let a user look see an image but prevent saving a
    copy is an instance of designing software to restrict the user: DRM.
    It presupposes proprietary software, which is unjust in itself, and
    often carries other malicious features (http://gnu.org/proprietary/).

    It is also more or less futile, since it can't stop the user from
    taking a photo of the screen.

    Proprietary software is software that gives the developer power
    over the users. It's not a solution, it's a problem. See
    http://gnu.org/philosophy/free.....tant.html.

    Dr Richard Stallman
    President, Free Software Foundation (gnu.org, fsf.org)
    Internet Hall-of-Famer (internethalloffame.org)
    MacArthur Fellow

  • Nike Store Paris France||

    The harm to young people but it is very serious. Government should strengthen management efforts, and heavier penalties.

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