Teen sexting: from moral panic to legal absurdity

Earlier this month in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a 17-year-old boy was sentenced to a year’s probation for sexually exploiting a minor – himself. The boy, Cormega Copening, had sent his girlfriend, Brianna Denson, naked photos of himself, and received photos of her in return. At the time, both were 16, and above the age of consent. But when the photos were found – as part of a wholly separate police investigation – they were 17. They were charged as adult predators, with themselves as the child victims, in what police described as a child pornography crime. Denson accepted a plea bargain in July; and if Copening had not followed suit, he could have been jailed for ten years. There was no suggestion that either of them had shared the photos further.

Lest we think this kind of legal absurdity is confined to the US, a similar case came to light just days earlier in the UK. A 14-year-old boy (who cannot be named) was found to have sent a naked photograph of himself to a female school-friend, and was charged by police with the crime of making and distributing indecent images. The photo was sent via Snapchat, which deletes images after ten seconds; but the girl saved it on her phone and then sent it on to other students at the school. Although the boy was not arrested or charged, his details will be stored on the police national database for ten years. Any future criminal records check – for example if he wishes to work with children – will identify him as a sex offender. Interestingly, the girl involved was not charged.

‘Sexting’ – the sending of sexually explicit messages or images via mobile networks – is the stuff of newspaper headlines. The day after the UK case, the Daily Telegraph ran a report explaining ‘why teenagers are no longer safe in their own bedrooms’; while a week later, the Daily Express reported ‘a huge rise in “sexting” cases with children as young as SIX sharing explicit photos online’. Both reports made much of statistics produced by the Internet Watch Foundation, past masters of the art of media panic.

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Cases such as these are by no means typical, but they illustrate a fundamental confusion. What’s happened is that a debate about teenage sex and digital technology has been conflated with a debate about something quite different: child pornography. Collapsing these two sets of concerns together results in a nonsensical situation where people can be accused of sexually exploiting themselves.

By no means all debates about young people and media reach the status of ‘media panics’ (as I have argued here); but the term remains useful for instances like this. And in this case, it’s easy to identify characteristics that are shared with other such panics. The phenomenon in question is typically over-generalized and sensationalized, when in fact it is by no means as prevalent as commentators claim. There is a process of displacement or conflation – in this instance, confusing ‘sexting’ with child porn, and those who engage in it with paedophiles. And, in many cases, the solutions that are proposed involve criminalizing those who are seen to be responsible. The work of Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle – reviewed in an earlier post here – provides a useful critical analysis of this process.

There is a growing body of research about sexting, yet the evidence is often quite confusing. Reports tend to suggest that it is a widespread and growing phenomenon among young people. Yet the available statistics do not always differentiate between those who are over or under the age of consent. Self-reporting in an area such as this is bound to be unreliable: what does it really mean if a six-year-old tells you that they have been ‘sexting’?

More to the point, the term itself is variously defined. For example, a recent report for the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children made much of the coercive nature of sexting, and its harmful impact on girls specifically. Yet it is hard to see this as characteristic of sexting in general. A somewhat older report by the US Pew Foundation makes a useful distinction here between (1) the exchange of images between romantic partners; (2) exchanges between partners that are shared outside their relationship; and (3) exchanges between those who are not (yet) in a relationship, but where one party at least hopes to be.

Other studies point to the diversity of reasons why people engage in this practice; the range of processes and consequences involved; and the diversity of the images themselves. By no means all sexting is non-consensual, and not all of it can be construed as a form of abuse, harassment or bullying.

Indeed, a quick online search of the term throws up a range of websites designed to give consenting adults advice on using sexting to spice up their relationships. While it’s possible to accuse women who engage in such practices of being complicit in their own abuse – and as victims of false consciousness – this doesn’t seem very plausible. And to frame it principally in terms of familiar questions about risk and harm is to ignore the diversity and complexity of what is taking place here.

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Sexting can be seen as one dimension of the contemporary ‘mediatization’ of sexuality. It undoubtedly raises new ethical questions and challenges. Yet, like young people’s use of pornography – which I have discussed here – these practices need to be addressed by educators, rather than merely condemned or ignored. Criminalizing those who engage in them would seem to be a particularly unproductive and nonsensical response.

One thought on “Teen sexting: from moral panic to legal absurdity

  1. Pingback: Self, self, self: representing the self in the age of social media | David Buckingham

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