Sexting: foolish, dangerous, criminal or just self expression?

"Sexting" is a word that combines "sex" and "texting"...

Posted Apr 18, 2010

"Sexting" is a word that combines "sex" and "texting;" it means sending a nude or semi-nude photo or a sexually suggestive message electronically. In a 2008 survey, the first of it's kind, the National Campaign found that 20% of teens had electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves. A full 48% reported having received sexually suggestive messages.


There are likely many reasons why young people might send such an electronic message.  Most teens have experiemented sexually, and it's possible that sexting is just another available venue to do so.  For some, it could be a way of getting attention, for others a method of seduction or anther way to say, "I love you."  The answer could be as simple as "because they can," and some have suggested it is partially due to the proliferation (and therefore normalization) of sexual and sexualized images on the internet.

While most teens and young adults who send these photos may see it as a harmless flirty note, the potential ramifications are far greater, because once it is sent, the photo is a permanent record that is now out of the hands of the sender. Approximately 40% of teens say it is common for nude or semi-nude photos to get shared with people other than the intended recipient. In Ohio in 2008 a middle school girl sent a nude photo of herself to a boy she liked and the photo subsequently circulated throughout the middle and high school. The girls was suspended and then was taunted so viciously by her peers that she ended up hanging herself. In yet another example of where the photos might go, there are pornographic websites online devoted solely to sexting photos that include pictures of teens.

In addition to the potential lack of privacy, pornographic use, and exposure to humiliation, one of the other issues related to sexting by teens is that of child-pornography laws. Last year, shortly after he turned 18, a boy in Florida sent a naked photo of his 16 year old girlfriend (that she had taken and sent to him) to her friends and family after an argument. The result: he was convicted of sending child pornography, sentenced to five years probation, and required by Florida law to register as a sex offender.  More recently, the ACLU was able to block prosecution of three girls in Pennsylvania who had made risque photos of themselves that showed up on classmates cellphones.

Kids make a momentary decision to take a nude photo of themselves and send it, much in the way teens make many of the decisions during that time in their life. However, in this case, that photo is "out there" forever, and potentially widely dispersed for an indefinite period of time. This presents another issue related to modern technology that our society (psychology, law, schools, etc.) has not yet caught up to. Is it a crime to create and send sexually provocative photos of underage girls or boys? Thus far, this has been considered pornography. But what if the photographer was the teen themselves? Who then should be charged? Only the individual who disseminates the image, or also the teen who took the photo and sent it? If so, should it be a felony or misdemeanor? There are no easy answers to these questions, and issues such as First Amendment rights, child protection laws, and age of consent are at stake.

Some, such as Marty Klein, a Palo Alto author and sex therapist, believe the issue has been blown out of proportion. "Sexting is the latest way adults are getting panicky about teen sexuality," he asserts. This may or may not be true. The question of sexuality and sexual rights and protection of young people has yet to be a fixed concept in our ever-changing society. However, sexting as an expression of sexuality amongst teens is potentially graver, given the permanence of it. Meanwhile, while one in five teens send or receive sexual images to each other, parents, schools, and the legal system scramble to try to figure out what, if anything, to do about it.

More Posts