Friday, Feb 20, 2009 11:30 AM UTC

The new pornographers

What's more disturbing -- that teens are texting each other naked pictures of themselves, or that it could get them branded as sex offenders for life?

The new pornographers

The photographs show three naked underage girls posing lasciviously for the camera. The perps who took the pictures were busted in Greensburg, Pa., and charged with manufacturing, disseminating and possessing child pornography — and so were their subjects. That’s because they are one and the same.

It all started when the girls, ages 14 and 15, decided to take nudie cellphone snapshots of themselves. Then, maybe feeling dizzy from the rush of wielding their feminine wiles, the trio text-messaged the photos to some friends at Greensburg-Salem High School. When one of the students’ cellphones was confiscated at school, the photos were discovered. Police opened an investigation and, in addition to the girls’ being indicted as kiddie pornographers, three boys who received the pictures were slammed with charges of child porn possession. All but one ultimately accepted lesser misdemeanor charges.

“Sexting,” where kids trade X-rated pictures via text message, has made headlines recently after a rash of cases in which child pornography charges have been brought not against dangerous pedophiles but hormonally haywire teenagers — potentially leaving them branded  sex offenders for life. Just last week, there came news that a middle-school boy in Falmouth, Mass., might face child porn charges for sending a naughty photo of his 13-year-old girlfriend to five buddies, who are also being investigated. There’s been plenty of outrage to go around: Some parents are angry to see teens criminalized for simply being sexual, while others find the raunchy shots pornographic, another blinking neon sign of moral decay in a “Girls Gone Wild” era. In both cases, it amounts to a tug of war between teenagers’ entitled sense of sexual autonomy and society’s desire to protect them.

It’s rather stunning that in the same age of the Pussycat Dolls, Disney starlets’ sexy photo scandals, Slut-o-ween costumes for kids and preteen push-up bras and thongs, teenagers are being charged with child porn possession for having photographs of their own naked bodies. That noise you hear? It’s the grating sound of cultural dissonance.

According to these recent interpretations of the law, a curious teenage girl who embarks on an “Our Bodies, Ourselves” journey of vaginal self-discovery, and simply replaces a hand mirror with a digital camera, is a kiddie pornographer. The same goes for the boy who memorializes his raging boner or the post-pubescent girl who takes test shots of herself practicing the porn star poses she has studied online. Theoretically, this is true regardless of whether they share the pictures with anyone, and if they do share them, they could be additionally charged with peddling child porn.

There are plenty of examples of the moral and legal gray areas created as technology broadens our behaviors: cyber-cheating, MySpace bullying, online gossip, upskirting, employers’ Web snooping. When it comes to “sexting,” though, the potentially damaging implications — for child pornography law, free speech and kids’ sexuality — are abundant. And it’s not going away any time soon. A recent online poll found that 20 percent of teens have shared nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves, the majority with a boyfriend or girlfriend. (Sure, voluntary polls tend to be self-selecting, but the results seem obvious, maybe even understated.) Teens will, as they always have, experiment with their sexuality. But at a time when free hardcore porn is ubiquitous, technology is cheap and the Internet is a comfortable channel for expression and experimentation, is it really any surprise that this is a generation of amateur pornographers?

It certainly isn’t to 20-somethings like myself who came of age during the Internet’s youth. By the time I was 14, I had seen my share of online porn and late-night HBO and made frequent use of the phrase “U wanna cyber?” in early AOL chat rooms. In high school in Berkeley, Calif., at least two student sex tapes were rumored to be making the rounds. I didn’t have a cellphone camera or a webcam, thank god — though I did have a Polaroid camera, which, to be sure, my longtime boyfriend and I toyed around with.

This is all part of how kids initiate themselves into our sexual culture long before they actually have sex. At one time, that meant a boy would flip through his father’s stash of Playboys and a girl would try on her mother’s ample bra. For me, it meant privately mimicking the stripper moves I had seen on TV and having online chats with people who occasionally turned out to be aging pervs. It was the best way I knew to try on, test out and confirm my femininity without actually having sex. (And that’s having been raised by hippie parents who compared the spiritual magic of sex to “two star systems colliding in outer space.”)

That sexual rite of passage remains, but today’s teens have an entirely different notion of privacy than past generations. They grew up in the exhibitionistic Web culture of LiveJournal, YouTube and MySpace. They’ve seen girls on TV playfully jiggling their breasts for plastic beads, “Real World” cast members boldly screwing in front of cameras, Britney flashing her bald lady parts. These days, why would a girl be concerned about her silly topless snapshot circulating around school?

That’s certainly the case with 16-year-old Melissa, a student at a high school near Greensburg-Salem, who has never worried about any of the X-rated pictures she’s shared, because she cropped her face out of the photos, so “no one could identify me unless like [they] lifted up my shirt to figure it out haha,” she wrote in a message sent on the blog platform Xanga. On her profile page, a rap song with the lyrics “I jus’ wanna act like a porno flick actor” plays. It also exhibits a self-portrait she took with a cellphone camera of her reflection in a floor-length mirror; the sassy expression on her face matches the page’s background: a sexy hot pink and lime green leopard print.

Joey, an 18-year-old who graduated from a San Francisco high school last year, has gotten X-rated snapshots from girls on his phone, through e-mail and on his MySpace page since he was 15. Some were longtime girlfriends that he swapped photos with and others were girls he’d just casually met; some pictures were suggestive, others were explicit. (“How graphic do you want me to get?” he asks, cautiously. “I’ve had girls send me photos of them fingering themselves.”)

“Older adults have a short memory. There were things we did — people flashed each other and played spin the bottle,” says Elizabeth Schroeder, director of Answer, Rutgers University’s program dedicated to promoting sexuality education. “This is this generation’s way of doing that.” Heather Corinna, the 38-year-old founder of Scarleteen, a Web site that provides sex-positive education for young adults, agrees: “Before we had this media, we had video cameras, before that film cameras, before that the written word, and all throughout, public or semi-public sex, ways of proclaiming to peers that one is sexually active or available to become so,” she says.

But, clearly, there is a big difference between testifying on the wall of the boy’s bathroom about the toe-curling blow jobs the school’s head cheerleader gives and sending your buddies photographic proof. These digital offerings bring the potential for humiliation and blackmail if the photos or video get into the wrong hands — and, let’s face it, they often do. Acting as your girlfriend’s personal porno star is one thing; ending up a pedophile’s favorite child pinup is quite another.

There’s good reason to be concerned about teens being self-pornographers. But many, especially legal experts, are disturbed by the fact that a healthy horn-dog of a teenager could be grouped in the same criminal category as a clinically ill pedophile. “These cases are picturing these teenagers as both predators and victims of themselves,” says Amy Adler, a law professor at New York University who has studied child porn laws. “Child porn law was founded on a very different vision of what the major threat was.”

That major threat, of course, is supposed to be adults who produce and peddle child smut. Reed Lee, a Chicago attorney and board member of the Free Speech Coalition, says: “A law to protect victims shouldn’t send those very victims to jail.”

Typically, kiddie porn is seen as exponentially harmful because it’s more than the original sexual abuse: It allows for a reliving of the trauma every time another pervert gets ahold of the material. But “if the initial photograph was not taken as part of a traumatic episode and was, like it or not, part of a more normal teenage experience, the abuse rationale becomes harder to see,” Adler argues. Still, plenty of child pornography cases have been prosecuted where the original photo is awfully benign — for example, a family picture taken at a nudist camp that is discovered by a pedophile and then cropped to reveal only the naked kid.

But it’s tough to impress those kinds of nuances on kids, says Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Jeffrey Douglas. He once spoke to a high school class and tried to explain that, even though everyone seems to be “sexting,” it “can literally destroy your life.” The response? A boy rolled his eyes while making a grand jack-off gesture. “It’s just the bullshit that adults tell them when they come to talk to them,” he said. “It’s tragically funny.”

Douglas points out that the bungled law reveals fascinating cultural conflicts about childhood and teen sexuality. “I think the problem originates from the pathological fear that our culture, particularly the legal part of the culture, takes toward juvenile sexuality.” He has defended numerous child porn cases and says prosecutors will treat the exchange of trial evidence like “an undercover heroin deal.” Douglas says, “The fear is so enormous that it’s like you’re dealing with something radioactive. They don’t consider the context or the meaning.”

The context here is that teens are undertaking the sexploration that our porned culture at once dictates and forbids — in the same way that girls are taught that there is desirable validation in their sexuality and then are shamed for actually being sexual. Rutgers’ Elizabeth Schroeder says an example of this contradiction is that sex educators like herself have to fight an uphill battle just to get into schools, while all it takes is a click of a button and a kid can catch an episode of “G-String Divas.” She once asked a group of 12-year-old boys what they thought it meant to be a girl and the first response was: “Girls are here to give lap dances to boys.”

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