A sexting PSA that doesn’t victim-blame

Most PSAs about sexting tell girls “just don’t sext.” Yet we know that abstinence-only is ineffective, and that this approach blames victims instead of addressing the real problem.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection recently posted a remarkable video aimed at teens about sexting and privacy violations. It is one of the few PSAs I’ve seen that blame privacy violators rather than victims:

What’s unique about this PSA is that it does not shame the girl for sexting in the first place. Instead, it blames the blame for wrong-doing on the person who shared her image without consent. The girl says, “I trusted him,” which highlights that he broke that trust.

In Canada, teens are better protected from prosecution for child pornography, as long as they sext consensually and within a private, intimate relationship. However, teens cannot consent to the distribution of their images outside the privacy of that relationship. I advocate that the US should adopt a similar reform to child pornography laws.

The video ends with the message: “it’s your body/ it’s your image/ TAKE BACK CONTROL.” This is something I’ve also never seen in a sexting PSA–the idea that girls, in particular, are entitled to ownership over their sexual images. Indeed, that is a key argument of my book, that we should look at sexting as media production and thus grant those who produce sexual images of themselves ownership rights. The point is to respect teens (especially girls’) sexual autonomy in order to better protect them if they are victimized by a privacy violation.

Bravo to the CCCP! Now, as other researchers have also argued, their next task might be to stop referring to consensual sexting as “self/peer exploitation” elsewhere on their website.

Do we really charge victims of privacy violations?

One of the main arguments for decriminalizing consensual teen sexting (with age spans) is that it would prevent victims from being charged. District Attorneys and others who are opposed to this change often claim that law enforcement would never do such a thing, so therefore no legal reform is needed.

This 2016 report on on “sextortion” from the Crimes Against Children Research Center provides new evidence that teenage victims of privacy violations (or threats, or other related harassment) are indeed sometimes threatened with prosecution under child pornography laws:

When victims were minors, perpetrators were often breaking criminal laws about the production or distribution of child pornography, but respondents feared they were vulnerable to criminal charges also. Some respondents [victims of “sextortion”] who described incidents that occurred when they were minors had been threatened with charges or blamed. So in many cases described in the survey, perpetrators were shielded from criminal consequences and respondents had little support from authorities. (p. 55)

Some examples from this survey:

“I was the one who ended up getting in legal trouble since I was the one who sent it.” Female, 16, f2f

“I was told I could be held responsible for making and distributing child pornography.” Female, 14, f2f

“The police threatened to bring me up on charges of distribution of child pornography.” Female, 17, online

“My boyfriend sent my whole family and his friends and my friends the photo. [My family and I] tried to press charges [and get a restraining order against him]. Him and I both looked at jail time, fines, and having to register as a sex offender for ‘child pornography’ since we were both under 18. Luckily, the state [did not press charges].” Female, 15, f2f

“I feel really intensely angry that you can get in legal trouble for sending naked pictures of YOURSELF when under 18. You literally can be charged as a sex offender for it, which is so incredibly wrong because I was the victim. All that law does is protect abusers…” Female, 17, online (p. 52)

The report makes this important recommendation for law enforcement:

[A]s with other sexual assault victims, police need to be trained to focus on perpetrator behavior to avoid exacerbating the sense of shame and self-blame that many victims feel.

In addition, law enforcement agencies need to review policies that lead them to charge young victims of sextortion with child pornography offenses or threaten to do so. Such policies, or victims’ fears of such policies, appeared to deter police reporting of perpetrators who victimized minors and increase the distress of victims who felt they could not get justice. (p. 63)

Discrimination in sexting charges

I wish we could trust prosecutors to never use child pornography charges against teens who sext consensually, but unfortunately we cannot. As we know, in 2009, approximately 7% of all child pornography production arrests are teens who’ve only engaged in consensual sexting. How many of those were youth of color? How many were gay or trans?

This recent case in Louisiana illustrates why we need to decriminalize consensual sexting–it’s no surprise that an African American teenage boy was charged here and the white girl he was sexting with was not. Neither should face any charges for consensual sexting!

Read here: “17-year-old black boy sexting with 16-year-old white girl and guess who’s charged with child pornography.”

Recent cases of unreasonable prosecutions

The most recent research I’m aware of on how often prosecutors use child pornography laws against teens is a study estimating that 7 percent of people arrested on suspicion of child pornography production in 2009 were teenagers who shared images with peers consensually.

I would love to see some studies of that provide more recent data. And I look forward to future research on how often prosecutors use new sexting misdemeanor laws against consensual sexters and against victims.

In the meantime, a few recent cases illustrate the need for legal reform to child pornography laws, since prosecutors are still trying to apply child porn laws to teenagers:

Some high-profile cases that are less recent:

I hope to add more cases to this page, so please comment or contact me if you come across others.

CBS This Morning

I was on CBS This Morning today talking about the opposition to Colorado’s proposed sexting misdemeanor bill:Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 8.23.48 AM

I don’t really understand the analogy to voting rights that the anchor makes at the end. After all, it’s not like all teens technically can vote, but then if they do cast a ballot, it’s a crime. That’s the difference with sexting that is so important to understand: one-third of 16- and 17-year olds are sexting, whether it’s a felony, misdemeanor, or not. We have to deal with that reality rather than dreaming that we might bring that rate down to 0%. It’s not going to happen.

Criminalizing all sexting  doesn’t stop it from happening, it just harms victims (because they won’t report if it means they’re guilty of the same crime), sends a dangerous slut-shaming message to girls who sext consensually, and gives law enforcement too much power to police consensual teen sexuality.

Sexual assault is a problem, but we don’t try to solve it by banning all sex. Instead, we have laws that are only against sexual assault. Sexting works the same way–it doesn’t make sense to ban all sexting, we need narrowly tailored ways of addressing harmful behaviors like sharing or creating a sexual image without permission.

“Teen sexting bill hits roadblock at State Capitol”

A local FOX news segment on the Colorado sexting bill.

The comment at the end of the video about “an opponent said that we don’t ban teen sex outright, so we shouldn’t ban sexting” was from me. This is great because reporters usually don’t cite (either they don’t cite specifically, or sometimes don’t cite at all) the things they agree with. Common sense needs no citation.