How to fix “sexting” laws

A New Jersey bill is a good start -- but we should do more to defend teens' sexual exploration

Topics: Sexting, Children, Parenting, Sex, Teenagers, Love and Sex,

How to fix "sexting" laws(Credit: Damir Cudic)

I just recently performed an archaeological dig on my childhood closet, which has been perfectly preserved in the state it was in when I flew the nest. Amid all the empty bottles of Smirnoff Ice and aimlessly doodled-on binders, I found a stockpile of what might be referred to in court as “child pornography” — but it was self-made with my high school boyfriend. The first thought I had when I saw the images — black-and-white printouts from a webcam — was how sweet the shots were, despite being mildly explicit. Here were two teenagers safely and lovingly exploring their bodies and sexualities — and because the images were kept strictly for our eyes only, they maintained that innocence.

That’s why I’m encouraged by news that late yesterday New Jersey approved a bill that would allow teenagers caught “sexting” to avoid being prosecuted as child pornographers. The bill is based on the wacky notion that teens shouldn’t be labeled as sex offenders for the rest of their lives for taking dirty self-portraits, or possessing X-rated photos of their sweetheart who, in many cases, they are legally allowed to have sex with. (Although, that was not the case for me, as the age of consent in California is 18. Whoops.) This measure is a great step toward a saner adult attitude toward teen sexuality, and other states should look to it as a blueprint. But there’s also room for improvement.

The bill gives teens the option of paying for an educational program as a way to avoid a damaging criminal record. Assemblyman Jon Bramnick told NBC that the measure “sends a clear signal to the Judiciary that when young people make a mistake, this Legislature is saying, ‘give them a chance, give them an option other than a criminal past.’” He’s absolutely right — it is absurd for “sexting” to land a teen on the sex offender registry — but Bramnick, and the measure itself, would be more right if they allowed that sometimes it isn’t a mistake or wrong when teenagers take sexy self-snapshots, that it can be part of normal sexual development.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think it’s a good idea for teenagers to distribute naked photos of themselves. More often than not it’s a bad idea to digitally share naked pics, even with a committed lover, and we should communicate that to teens. (We should also be educating kids, and adults, about the profound potential for embarrassment and professional consequences in digitally sharing even personal images that are not pornographic.) If we were really concerned with the well-being and personal rights of teenagers, though, we would create a legislative safe space for sexual exploration.

Clearly, the major concern is that by allowing teens to even take or possess naked self-portraits, we would be sanctioning the production of child pornography. It’s true that once an image is digitalized its reach can be enormous — whether it’s on a hackable computer or spread through a chain of text messages. But we should find a way to both protect teens against exploitation and allow them a reasonable degree of sexual autonomy. Save the prosecutions and the example-making for those who disseminate pornographic images of minors other than themselves (and that would include, say, the girlfriend who texts an image of her ex-boyfriend’s penis to the entire school in an act of retaliation). There certainly are no easy black-and-white answers here, especially when it comes to the blunt instrument of the law, but we should keep striving for smarter legislation — and the New Jersey bill is a start.

As for my recent discovery in my childhood closet? I threw all the photos away, impulsively and in a moment of fear. I mean, child pornography, eek! A big part of me regrets it, though. I don’t see any good reason why it should be illegal for me to possess those images. And it would have been nice to dig the photos out of a safe hiding place when I have high school kids of my own and to remember what it was like to be a lusty teenager in love.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>