How a yearbook became child porn

A California high school is making global headlines after inadvertently distributing an explicit image of minors

Published June 23, 2011 8:01PM (EDT)

Finally, a news story about a clash between the law and teenage sexuality that doesn't involve sexting. It does, however, involve a naughty photograph that spread like wildfire throughout an entire high school and had local police threatening teenagers with jail time for possessing it. The key difference in this case: The photo wasn't spread by text message but rather a school yearbook in San Bernardino County, Calif.

Shortly after the yearbook (a charming relic from the pre-Facebook age) was handed out at the end of the school year, a seemingly innocuous photograph taken at a Big Bear High School dance drew people's attention. Upon closer inspection, a sex act was discovered in the background between a 17-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl; he reportedly had his hand up her knee-length skirt and there was some sort of alleged penetration. I would be more descriptive but the image is legally forbidden; police called on all students to return their yearbooks or face being locked up for possession of child pornography.

And there's more: Authorities say that the district attorney's office might file criminal charges. Under California law, minors can be charged both as perpetrators and victims of unlawful sexual intercourse. Typically, the older party is treated as the bad guy, and in this case, since there's an age difference of less than three years, it would be considered a misdemeanor (though these cases are rarely prosecuted unless there is evidence suggesting it was coercive). There is also the possibility of child pornography charges, which are similarly unlikely -- but crazier things have certainly happened in this area of the law.

I first heard about this "yearbook recall" on local TV while on vacation last week. Since then, this little news item has migrated not just across the country but also across the pond to the U.K., largely thanks to intensifying buzz about the possibility for criminal prosecution and jail time. I suspect this story is generating interest because it provides yet more evidence of the advancing creep of teenage sexuality: It's everywhere we look -- not only on the Internet and cellphones but in yearbooks too! (And, if you're like the parents featured Wednesday on "Good Morning America," it might be right there under your own roof.) It's like the world is one big "Where's Waldo" or "Magic Eye" for inappropriate teen behavior; what seems a sweet and innocent photo of a high school dance actually shows "sexual penetration of a minor."

I was struck by this quote from local detective Jeremiah MacKay in the Los Angeles Times: "As much as we know teenagers are and will be teenagers, by law we cannot ignore it." We treat teenage sexuality as something that is dangerous, and therefore requiring restriction, but also inevitable. Ultimately, that isn't all that different from how we treat adult sexuality -- as something so uncontainable that it must be contained.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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