Sexting is not always the innocent flirtation teens think it is—especially when they’re underaged

Bernie Sanders wins Nevada Caucuses
The likely win in Nevada makes it clear Sanders is the early front runner.

See all Editor's Picks

It’s beginning to become a story to us as familiar as Romeo and Juliet.

A 14-year-old in the UK made headlines this week after sending a risqué Snapchat of himself to a girl he liked. He thought he was flirting; the law saw it differently: his Snapchat legally constituted an indecent image of a child. While he was not charged with a crime, his act will be on the public record for up to 10 years—potentially barring him from future employment.

Teens are finding that NSFW photos can have far-reaching consequences due of laws intended to penalize the distribution of child pornography. There is no distinction or provision under these laws, in the UK or the U.S., for teens who share an image consensually with age-appropriate partners. In other words, all that matters to the law is that those depicted in them are underage.  

This UK boy’s case is not unique—other teens have been treated like adults when they participate in sexting. Last year, a teenaged couple in New Jersey faced charges that would require them to register as sex offenders if convicted.

Earlier this year in North Carolina, a 16-year-old young woman and her boyfriend were arrested after the sheriff’s office decided the teenager had committed two felony sex crimes against herself for sending a nude photo to her boyfriend, who was also 16 at the time. If convicted, she would have served time in prison and been required to register as a sex offender for the rest of her life. Her case was settled with a plea deal but her boyfriend’s case is still pending, which means he might still serve time.

The sexual activity of teenagers is hardly news: In the U.S. today, 46 percent of all high school age students have had sexual intercourse and these statistics have remained largely unchanged since 1991. What has changed is the involvement of technology, particularly computers and smartphones that every teen seems to possess.

Most of the time, when teens sext each other, no one knows. But when people find out about it—such as when the sext-ee shares it with his or her friends or the image is posted in an online forum—the consequences can be dire. As Conor Friedersdorf puts it at The Atlantic:

“In an alarming number of cases, however, adult strangers get ahold of the images and proceed to systematically destroy the lives of the young people involved. These destroyers are neither child pornographers nor pedophiles nor blackmailers. They are representatives of the criminal-justice system: police officers, prosecutors, and judges, often well-meaning, who prosecute kids as felonious sex-criminals, sometimes putting them on sex-offender registries for life.”

Seemingly harmless events can unravel into worst-case scenarios quickly. Parents and schools get angry, police get involved, and through reporting, the media ensures that the names of teenagers involved will always be linked with these incidents. (The Daily Dot has chosen not to use the names of any teenagers in this article.)

There is some pushback against this criminalization of teenage sexual relationships. Backlash, an organization in the UK that is dedicated to providing academic, legal, and campaigning resources for the defense of freedom of sexual expression, has already announced that they will campaign for a change to the law so that “prosecutions intended to halt child abuse are not used to instigate the abuse of children through the criminal justice system.”

Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, is concerned about the repercussions of such arrests and worried our society is sending a disastrous message about consent to youngsters. As she stated via email with the Dot:

“It is beyond inappropriate to classify teenagers who take pictures of themselves or consensually sext with significant others around their same age as sex offenders. These are young people who are consensually exploring their sexuality with each other—criminalizing that behavior not only impacts the targeted individuals, but also creates an environment in which teens are afraid to talk with adults about their sexual experiences and questions.”

Advising teens—and adults, too, frankly—to simply refrain from sexting seems to not be so effective. Teens are especially are not receptive to considering the long-term legal implications of their private behavior. As Dr. Sheila Addison, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist couples and sex therapist in Berkeley, CA, reminded the Daily Dot via chat:

“Developmentally, we know that teenagers are not very good at making decisions that take into account long-term consequences of their actions.  This is why we have the whole distinction between juveniles and adults in the law to begin with, including age of consent laws, age limits on marriage and voting and drinking, and of course separate courts for youth and adults.”

Dr. Alan Hilfer, the Chief Psychologist, The Director of Clinical Psychology Internship Training, and the Associate Director of the Child and Adolescent Unit at the Maimonides Medical Center, said via email to the Daily Dot that, “like everything else with adolescents, most of the time, warnings and examples fall on deaf ears.”

How much is technology to blame as teenagers try to navigate their sexual exploration? Would teens find themselves in compromising digital situations less if parents searched their phones and computers regularly as is sometimes advised?

It’s all too easy to forget that every new technological development has been accompanied by people figuring out a way to use that technology for sex—or at least flirting. Even the telegraph was viewed with suspicion back in the day. Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes  by Ella Cheever Thayer was originally published in 1879 and was a best-seller for 10 years. It expressed the cultural suspicion of the telegraph and how it enabled Nattie Rogers, the 19-year-old protagonist, to retreat from the “real” world into a world of social intercourse through the wires. There was, in fact, a whole subgenre of telegraph literature that explored how people could use Morse code to flirt.

Technology is going to keep developing and teenagers are going to keep using it to send each other racy messages. So where does that leave the discussion when we remove the moral panic about teens and their technology?

The answer might be that any discussion at all may be misplaced.  As Friedman concluded in her email to the Daily Dot:

“What we do need is accountability for people of any age who share sexual material nonconsensually So, in the case of teen sexting, the young people who face consequences should be the ones who, for example, share with friends a photo their girlfriend or boyfriend entrusted them to keep private. We should be far more concerned about teaching young people to respect each others’ agency, boundaries and privacy than we are with whether they’re being consensually sexual with each other, using the latest technology or none at all.”

That day may still be far off yet. Until then, teenagers will find themselves in the crosshairs in ways our forebears who were scandalized by the telegraph could never have imagined.

Photo via Pro Juventute/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Marianne Kirby

Marianne Kirby

Marianne Kirby is a writer whose work focuses on women's issues and bodies. Her byline has appeared in the Guardian and xoJane, and she has appeared on the Dr. Phil Show and Radio New Zealand.