The problem with sexting legislation

Lawmakers don’t seem to understand the fluidity and diversity of motives behind sexting, so even the latest legislation addressing it is flawed and needs further thought.

By Anne Collier

The good news about proposed legislation in New Jersey is that “teens caught texting or posting sexually explicit photos online could avoid prosecution under a measure that would give first-time offenders the chance to complete a diversionary program,” as reported in the Washington Post. The bad news is that the law is focused on the person doing the sending – and that lawmakers don’t seem to understand the fluidity and diversity of motives behind sexting. Sometimes it’s a consensual, though unthinking, situation that can go very wrong. But too often teens who send sext messages are persuaded by someone else to send photos of themselves. And in some of those cases, those labeled “sextortion,” there’s criminal intent. “With ‘sextortion’ you have a conscious effort by someone to purposely try to intimidate someone for personal gain,” Det. Frank Dannahey in Connecticut told me in an email, in which case the receiver of the photos is threatening to distribute them if the sender doesn’t do what he or she says.

“A 14-year-old girl in Iowa convinced an 18-year-old boy to send her an image of his private part. He did. Her mother found it. He is now a registered sex offender – a life absolutely destroyed,” Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use in another email (here’s a New York Times article with more detail on that and other sexting cases around the country. Said Detective Dannahey, “I see a huge difference between an impulsive action [and sextortion]. The ‘sextortion’ situation is much more significant when you look at the issue of ‘intent,’ which is the basis for our criminal law system.” It’s essential that schools unearthing such cases investigate them thoughtfully and treat the sender with care, at the very least including a school psychologist in the team that does the investigation and not reflexively sending cases to law enforcement. The laws in our country have not caught up with the potential abuses of digital media, especially sexting, and lawmakers need to understand the full range of causes of and intentions behind the practice. Just as important as writing new laws, if not more important, “We need to get ‘safe harbor’ provisions into all sex abuse-related statutes that relate to this,” Willard wrote.

Related links

* From an educator who knows: “The Teen Sexting Problem and What Schools Can Do About It,” by education consultant Mike Donlin in Seattle
* “Sexting primer for parents”
* “Sexting: New study & the ‘Truth or Dare’ scenario”
* “Susquenita sexting case: A parent’s view”

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