“Sexting” – Humiliating? How About Criminal?

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There has been a spate of news articles over the past week about a supposedly new teen trend called “sexting” — basically kids taking nude photos and sending them to each other’s cell phones and computers. The articles follow a Today Show interview with the mother of a girl who committed suicide last July after her photos started getting spread around. Most of the articles out there are of the “how do we protect our children from themselves” variety, but there is also a legal consideration. A lot of this activity could count as child porn, and could result in criminal prosecution.

Jesse Logan was a high school student in the Cincinnati area. Like plenty of teenage girls before her, she gave her boyfriend some nude photos. Unlike the Polaroids of previous generations, she sent them electronically, either by cell phone or by email.

Also unlike physical Polaroids, making copies of these photos would be free and easy. A potentially unlimited number could be sent off to others, just as she had sent them to her boyfriend. When they broke up, the ex-boyfriend sent copies to other high school girls. The photos spread around from cell phone to cell phone, and she started getting harassed at school. She became miserable, stopped going to school, and even went on a local TV station to tell her story.

Two months later, one of Jesse’s acquaintances committed suicide. She went to the funeral, then came home and hanged herself.

Hers is only the most tragic case making the news right now. But it happens all the time. There are reports that nearly half of all high school boys these days have seen nude photos of girls in their school. Some of those are spread by the girls’ boyfriends after a breakup, but most seem to have just been disseminated through normal teen chat.

If those ex-girlfriends were under 18 — and most of them probably were at the time, this being high school — then those photos are child porn. Distributing child porn, possessing it, and disseminating it to minors are all crimes that can get those high schoolers in serious trouble.

The consequences could be very severe. The ex-boyfriends and others who spread their photos could be charged with child porn, receive real jail sentences, and spend the rest of their lives as registered sex offenders.

Realistically, a teenage boy with a nude photo of his girlfriend isn’t likely to be charged with child porn. But someone who sends that photo to others, or posts it online, or otherwise spreads it around… that’s a whole ‘nother story.

It doesn’t even have to be intentional. Alan Grieco, a psychologist who treats Florida sex offenders, told Tampa Bay Online about a client who, when a young 20-year-old man, had dated a 17-year-old girl. He had a nude photo of her on his cell phone, which he did not share with anyone else. But after breaking up, his new girlfriend found the photo and sent it to the first girl’s parents. That young man was then charged with child pornography, and is going to spend the rest of his life living with that.

The kids who voluntarily send nude images of themselves aren’t thinking about how easy they will spread, how permanent such things are once they’re in the wide electronic world, and how much of an embarrassment they could be in the years ahead. That’s bad enough. But what’s worse is that the kids who receive, post and pass around these photos could be putting themselves in very hot water indeed.

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