I was interviewed for this month’s Atlantic cover story on sexting by Hanna Rosin, and the article mentioned my forthcoming book as well!
The importance of consent also comes across well in the interview Rosin did for Fresh Air about the article, and Rosin accurately describes the vital problem I’ve found with many misdemeanor sexting laws that have been passed since the panic began in 2009: most of these new laws don’t distinguish between consensual sexting and deliberate acts of harm and humiliation.
In her article, Rosin also explains the problems with new misdemeanor laws very clearly:
In Florida, for example, a minor who is guilty of transmitting or distributing a nude photograph or video must pay a fine, complete community service, or attend a class on sexting. A second offense is a misdemeanor and a third is a felony. Where they’ve been passed, the new laws have helpfully taken ordinary teen sexting out of the realm of child pornography and provided prosecutors with a gentler alternative. But they have also created deeper cultural confusion, by codifying into law the idea that any kind of sexting between minors is a crime. For the most part, the laws do not concern themselves with whether a sext was voluntarily shared between two people who had been dating for a year or was sent under pressure: a sext is a sext. So as it stands now, in most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it’s a matter for the police.
Yet her suggestion that the prosecutorial discretion can solve the inherent problems of criminalizing sexting ignores the fact that queer youth, low-income youth, and youth of color caught sexting will be disproportionately penalized:
The nonconsensual sharing of pictures, even among just a few people, should probably count as a criminal act, as long as there is prosecutorial discretion.
At the same time, I was also glad to see that Rosin explained how law enforcement involvement in privacy violation cases can be even more traumatizing than the original incident:
What seemed to mortify them most was having to talk about what they’d done with a “police officer outside their age group.”
… Marsha Levick, a co-founder of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, sees many cases where the police investigation does much more harm than the incident itself. “The rush to prosecute always baffles me,” she says. “It’s the exponential humiliation of these boys, or more often girls, in an official setting, knowing their photos will be shown to police officers and judges and probation officers. And the reality is, a lot of these officials are going to be men. That process itself is what’s traumatizing.”
Finally, I’m really pleased that Rosin discusses the sexual double standard, which is at the heart of slut-shaming and sexual harassment:
Studies on high-school kids’ general attitudes about sexting turn up what you’d expect—that is, the practice inspires a maddening, ancient, crude double standard. Researchers from the University of Michigan recently surveyed a few dozen teenagers in urban areas. Boys reported receiving sexts from girls “I know I can get it from” and said that sexting is “common only for girls with slut reputations.” But the boys also said that girls who don’t sext are “stuck up” or “prude.” The boys themselves, on the other hand, were largely immune from criticism, whether they sexted or not.