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Sexting, Pornography, and the Law

Posted by Anthony on April 28, 2009

By Anthony J. Aschettino

With each new generation come advances in technology that force us to revisit the legal system’s strictures. Quite often there is a slight lapse that occurs when the law has to catch up with modernity, and the current phenomenon of “sexting” is here no different.

As many are aware, “sexting” is the act of sending what are defined as pornographic images via text-message on mobile phones. Normally this would not be an issue between consenting adults, but the legal problem arises from the issue of underage youths sending their own naked images to friends, some of whom may be of legal age. Since these pictures are often construed to represent “child pornography”, the law can be quite harsh for both those who send and receive the images.

Currently there is no uniform law addressing the issue, and the result is the usual baffling array of charges from overzealous prosecutors who are either determined to stamp out what they view as sexual immorality or simply afraid that they will be seen as soft on prosecuting child predators by their communities. They are fighting a twenty-first century battle with a twentieth century mindset.

The distribution of child pornography is indeed a most heinous of crimes and one that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law: those who are willing to help in the production or distribution of it are indeed a plague upon our society. Yet a sixteen year old girl who sends naked images of herself to another sixteen year old boy should not fall into the same category as a fifty year old man who films himself molesting an eight year old girl. Common sense tells us that, but many prosecutors in their desire to “get tough” on sexual crimes against children either cannot or refuse to see the difference.

Naturally most of this can be explained by the American obsession with puritanical views on sexuality. In a word, Americans are quite schizophrenic when it comes to sex: for a country where evangelical Christians are at their loudest and abstinence only education is trumpeted in many parts, Americans spend anywhere from $4- 8 billion per year on pornography. Treating sex as something bad and immoral before children are eighteen sets them up for a massive disconnect when they realize that the vast majority of America has no problem with those very children engaging in the most extreme sex acts once they hit that magic age.

This is not to say that pornography is in and of itself a bad thing: like most other topics in life, it has its pros and cons. The main problem with pornography from a social point of view is simply that it sets up unrealistic expectations for young people about sexuality when they may not know much about it themselves thanks to shoddy sex education by both parents and educators.

Pornography is acting, and just like in any other movie genre the actors are paid to do things that the public wishes to see. Adults who watch pornographic movies are aware that the acts portrayed are not normally part of a daily sexual regime, but younger people may not be as aware of the distinction between acting and reality. This creates a situation where younger people watching pornography are setting themselves up for impracticable expectations that were never meant to be “realistic” but were there purely for entertainment.

Young girls should not feel that they need to live up to expectations of hyper-sexuality anymore than young boys should feel that they have the right to demand such from the girls, and while it is true that they ought to be discouraged from sending compromising pictures of themselves out in an age where everything is permanent thanks to the internet, they should not be treated as criminals for doing so.

Does this mean that a thirty-year old should be able to receive naked pictures from a fifteen year old? Certainly not. But prosecutors must take into consideration intent and the ages of both parties involved when deciding on the level of punishment to seek in such cases.

At the end of the day, the dilemma with “sexting” speaks volumes about the problems we have in America discussing human sexuality in a frank manner with our youth. Unless we are able to treat the national schizophrenia surrounding sex in this country, such problems will continue to arise as the law seeks to find its way through this new technology.


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