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.

The Denver Post supports HB 1058

The Denver Post just published an editorial supporting Colorado’s proposed sexting misdemeanor bill: “Colorado teen sexting bill gives DAs proper tools.”

It seems that they particularly disliked my NYT op ed:

In an op-ed Monday in The New York Times, Hasinoff wrote, “These new laws may seem like a measured solution to the problem of charging teenage sexters with child pornography felonies. However, once they have the option of lesser penalties, prosecutors are more likely to press charges — not only against teenagers who distribute private images without permission, but also against those who sext consensually.”

We very much doubt her forecast. In our crystal ball, prosecutors are likely to press charges when there have been complaints, and complaints will generally occur when someone’s nude photo is shared without permission or when someone receives a photo they did not request.

Many prosecutors are reasonable and will indeed only press charges on legitimate complaints, and only against those who’ve committed acts of harm.

But let’s not forget about the research on this topic. The Post no doubt saw an earlier sentence in my op ed that explained: “The University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center estimates that 7 percent of people arrested on suspicion of child pornography production in 2009 were teenagers who shared images with peers consensually.”

Given that, we cannot trust all prosecutors to only press charges against people who share photos without permission or send unwanted photos to others. I don’t need a crystal ball to predict that some prosecutors will charge consensual sexters. I have research, which says that they have and suggests that they will continue to do so. And that study is of child pornography production arrests. Many prosecutors are hesitant to press felony charges against teens. But if I’m going to pull out my own crystal ball, I’d say that they won’t be so hesitant to use misdemeanor charges against teens.

If prosecutors don’t want to charge consensual sexters or victims of sexting-related abuses, the solution is simple: amend the new sexting misdemeanor so that they can’t. It’s a simple fix that protects victims and consensual sexters alike. All they’d need to do is provide an affirmative defense that the image was produced, possessed, and shared consensually.

If prosecutors truly don’t intend to charge victims or threaten them with charges–which adds trauma and harm to someone who’s already be grievously violated–they should have no problem amending the misdemeanor to exclude people who’ve done nothing to harm another person.

Addressing harm

And while it’s all well and good to talk about the consensual exchange of nude photos between, say, two 15-year-olds, the fact is they lose control over those images forever. Are they really mature enough to understand the implications — how they’ll feel, for example, if their partner sends out those pictures six months or six years later to dozens of friends?

There’s some interesting research that sexual violence is unique among crimes in that it’s often discussed in the passive voice. Journalists writing news articles tend to give agency to the perpetrator when their crimes are murder, assault, or theft (“a man shot two people yesterday”) but erase agency when their crimes are sexual (“a woman was allegedly sexually assaulted yesterday”). So I take note here when the Post writes: “they lose control over those images forever.”

Of course it’s true that people who share any information with anyone no longer have control over it. That applies to your health records, your financial information, and your sexts. The difference is, we have laws to protect you from privacy violations for the first two types of information, but not so much the last one. You don’t simply “lose control,” in any of those cases–a specific person has to mistakenly or maliciously decide to violate your privacy. And until we can develop better ways to hold that person accountable, we are all at risk.

And finally, I agree that teens (like adults!) may not foresee the possibility that an image they share consensually may later be distributed without their permission. After all, most people do not expect their intimate partners to harm them, but it happens. Indeed, this happens to around 10% of teen sexters, and it can be seriously traumatic and humiliating.

This is the key difference between laws against teen sexting and laws against teen drinking–we owe the utmost compassion to traumatized victims of privacy violation. Giving them that compassion means laws must exempt them from being prosecuted alongside the perpetrators who violated their privacy.