Many may thing sexting is harmless, but the reality is it could land a teenager in jail or get him or her labeled as a sex offender for the rest of their life. Likewise, adults could lose their jobs or see total career ruin. Professional photographers had best be careful with client photos, too.
We've all done stupid things when we were young. One of the many benefits of youth is being able to get away with the sort of thing that would never be allowed as an adult. However, it's when young people cross the line into adult activities that the law must decide whether to charge those juveniles as adults. When child pornography comes into question, lawmakers tend to take the hard line and young lives could be ruined in the process. This is what spurned the sexting legislation that was signed into law in New York this past September.
To some, the act of sexting may seem like nothing more than the modern day equivalent of flashing someone. The problem today is that the permanence of data storage and easy spread of information via the Internet could make one photo into the complete ruin of those involved. Like most laws, the new sexting law was designed to protect young people from such problems, rather than to persecute them for just being kids.
What is Sexting?
Sexting is derived from the word 'texting' and originally implied using text messages to send explicit messages to others. In the early days of cell phones and pagers, text messages were the only way to communicate back and forth, other than making a phone call. Since then, sexting has come to encompass technology upgrades that include the ability to take photos and even video that can be sent to others.
Among the many problems associated with sexting, it can be damning from a technological perspective. Once you send out a nude photo or video of yourself, it enters the wilds of the Internet. All it takes is one angry boyfriend or girlfriend to post your photo on Facebook or Twitter, then it can spread around in seconds. Before you know it, your photo could be everywhere. Your friends could see, or maybe even your parents. Pedophiles would love to see it, too.
Spreading nude photos seems like it might even be funny, but consider that if the subject of the photo was underage and everyone who viewed or shared the image was accused of trafficking in child pornography. Not so funny anymore, is it?
The New York Law
Part of what the new law in New York does is educate young people on the dangers of sexting by putting them through a training program, but it's optional. The idea is to give them an alternative to being charged with distributing child pornography, which would get them labeled as a sex offender for the rest of their lives. Such a label would ruin most anyone's chances of ever having a decent job and would forever haunt them anywhere they went.
Is it fair that a kid sending pictures of his or herself could be charged with child pornography? To me, it seems like a gray area that is so difficult to address that lawmakers just go 'zero tolerance' and that probably is the best thing. Although the sender might intend for another young person to see their photo, there is always the risk of it getting out. That's where the distribution label comes from. If you were the first to send out a nude photo of a minor, even if it's a photo of yourself, then you are the original distributor and can no longer control who else might see the photo.
How would you feel if you walked into a room, be it a classroom or even your workplace, and found naked photos of yourself plastered all over the wall? Could you even show your face at that place again, especially after you'd shown every other part of yourself? Your reputation could be ruined by constant public embarrassment because nobody would ever let you live it down. This sort of thing might be funny in movies, but in real life it could even lead to suicide. A teenager in Ohio did kill herself after a nude photo she sexted got passed around her high school.
Telling teenagers not to sext each other is like telling them not to drink, smoke, do drugs or have sex. No matter what you say, some of them are going to do it - even the ones who go to church every Sunday and get straight A's in school. You just never know what kind of stuff goes on, and that's part of the reason why cell phones are so popular because they can be private. I know parents who readily admit that they barely know how to use a smartphone, whereas you can be assured that the average teenager is nearly an expert at using one.
Establishing sexting laws like they have in New York is a good way to protect children not just from themselves but from online predators, and I think that is the greater concern. Kids seeing each other naked isn't ever going to stop. Just look how many sequels the American Pie series has spawned. It's a perfect example of a teen sex comedy, and the first one had a scene where two teenagers had a sexual encounter in front of a webcam while the whole school watched. It was hilarious!
Parents, Do Your Job
Other states are taking different approaches than New York when it comes to addressing sexting. In Connecticut, it is currently a felony for anyone under 18 to sext another, but legislators are trying to get it dropped down to a misdemeanor. Vermont went in a completely different direction and sought to legalize sexting between consensual minors, but the law that eventually went on the books made it so the first charge is a juvenile offense and nobody gets charged as an adult.
Parents, please educate your children on the dangers of sexting. Relay them the story of Jesse Logan, the teen girl from Ohio who killed herself after nude photos she sexted to an ex-boyfriend wound up ruining her reputation at the school. The Paris Hiltons of the world might gain their fame from a sex tape, but the reality is that it would destroy most people. Don't let it happen to you or your kids.
What happens when it's two or more consenting adults doing the sexting? It's one thing to be embarrassed at your school, but adults caught sexting could see their careers ruined. Just look at what happened to the unfortunately (or rather, appropriately) named Congressman Anthony Weiner. He got caught up in a sexting scandal that probably wouldn't have been that big a deal except he was married and the woman he sexted was not his wife. Congress members should know that you have to reach the White House before you can get away with stuff like that.
Consider the case of the Nevada Highway Patrol sergeant who was fired for sexually harassing three female employees to whom he happened to be their boss. This was a case where the eager sergeant sent suggestive photos to his subordinates and was fired after they complained. He countered the firing by saying he should deserve his job back because the women had sent him nude photos back. Talk about a hostile work environment.
Whether it is consensual or not, even grown-ups need to be careful about sexting. Pornography laws vary between municipalities, and you could get in trouble if the right prosecutor hammered down on you. Furthermore, a sexual harassment complaint can lead to costly lawsuits and job termination that could put an end to your career or even your marriage. I don't think sexting itself should be made illegal simply because there are already enough societal responses and even laws that nail the consequences of spreading nude photos of yourself.
If you are a professional photographer doing shots for a model or actor, the subject of nude photos may arise. Perhaps the person wants to have a small private collection or intends to keep them as back-ups in case they ever decide to take on a role or performance that may require nudity. If it's a high profile actress, for example, those photos could be worth a lot of money. You never know how a career might skyrocket a few years after some photos were taken, and this puts the photographer in a bit of a predicament. Given the public obsession with celebrities, a photographer could make a ton of money if they turned out to have nude photos of some big name star that were taken shortly before they hit the big time. Could the potential payout be worth the lawsuit risk?
On the other hand, models and actors, or anyone else for that matter, should think twice before allowing someone to take nude photos. You never know when that flattering photographer could become an blackmailing swindler and threaten to spread your photos online. If you aren't willing to accept the consequences of such photos getting out, then you'd best not take them at all. Otherwise, you're putting an awful lot of trust into whoever took the photos. You might be able to claim rights to the pictures or even win a judgement in court against whoever spread them. However, the question of ownership won't mean a thing when your photo ends up on celebrity blogs and other websites where anyone with a web browser can make their own copy and share.
What do you think about the whole sexting debate? Is it just kids being kids or something more sinister? We'd love to hear your opinions, especially if you've had any personal experience with the subject. Please use the comment section below to share your thoughts on the matter.
Las Vegas Review Journal, Nevada Highway Patrol sergeant, fired for sexting, wants job back
NewsLI.com, Hannon's "Sexting" Legislation Signed into Law
Image credit: Jail Cell by Andrew Bardwell, CC2.0
Image credit: Texting by Alton, Wikimedia Commons, CC3.0
The Wall Street Journal, Lawmakers Propose Teen 'Sexting' Law
WKYC.com, Ohio to Address 'Sexting' Laws
Image credit: Sexting from Wikimedia Commons, CC1.0