By Ellen Goodman
I am sure that Vermonters don’t like the idea of teens sending sexy pictures from one phone to another. Nor do Ohio and Utah parents want their kids using cell phone minutes to bare their bodies for their buddies.
Nevertheless, their state legislatures are among the first trying to sensibly ratchet down the penalties for “sexting.” They are backing away from laws that treat a teenager with a cell phone as if he or she were a child pornographer. They know there’s a difference between truly dreadful judgment and a felony.
Over the last months, sexting, that spicy combo of sex and texting, has created something between a moral panic and a reprise of “Trouble in River City.” Parents who have barely begun to absorb the too-much-information on Facebook are now confronted with research suggesting that one in five teens has sent or posted scantily clad or nude pictures of himself or herself.
If sexting sends parents into a spiral, it pushes prosecutors into high gear. We’ve had Pennsylvania high school girls threatened with child porn charges for posing. We have a middle school boy in Indiana facing obscenity charges for sending a naked photo to his classmates. We even have an 18-year-old who sent nude photos of his girlfriend now listed as a sex offender alongside child rapists.
The panic not only erases the line between the stupid and the criminal, it dilutes the real horror of child pornography. If a 13-year-old taking a picture of herself is the equal of a predator taking a picture of children in sex acts, says Danah Boyd of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, “we won’t have the tools to go after the people we need to go after.”
The mislabeling also hides the reality of this technological and social harm.
There is nothing particularly new about young people taking pictures of themselves. It’s as old as the Polaroid. Nor is there anything new about the private going viral. It’s older than the photos of a naked Jackie O on a Greek island. What’s different now is that teenagers can be their own paparazzi and be vulnerable to the humiliation once reserved for celebrities.
As Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life Project says, “You have at your fingertips the ability to take pictures of a beautiful cherry tree or yourself in underpants. Teens are doing all that.” Once you hit the send button, you’ve lost control. “Pixels,” says Lenhart, “are devious and scurry out of your grasp.”
The photo that is sent in a reckless or mean moment can travel around the world as fast as Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” It has the half-life of radioactive waste. Everybody who has ever wished for a delay on their e-mail knows that, but teens are least likely to think about the long run. And they are often more trusting.
The vast majority of pictures are sent to romantic partners. A lot of what we are seeing is young people exploring trust and intimacy. As Boyd says, “If you look at the reasons why they share naked content, one is a form of flirting. Another is a way of brokering trust, a guy saying, ‘You don’t trust me? You won’t send me a naked picture?’ ” A brokered trust leads to broken trust when those photos are sent into the ether.
So what’s at stake is not pornography. “Almost all the cases,” Boyd says, “boil down to harassment and bullying.”
Let’s not forget the sexism in the sexting. It’s mostly girls’ pictures that get passed around. It’s often boyfriends—or ex-boyfriends—who hold the trump photo. It’s girls who pay a social price in humiliation. It’s girls who get tagged in the mean-girl lingo as “sluts.”
Eighteen-year-old Jessica Logan of Ohio committed suicide after her boyfriend put her naked photos out in public, but it was girls who bullied and harassed her. The girl who trusted was socially ostracized more than the boy who violated that trust. Go figure.
If the sexting scandal has done anything, it’s gotten parents to take a peek at the pixels just as they’ve turned MySpace into OurSpace. We have to remove the felony label. But how do we raise the social penalty for being a certified creep?
While we figure this out, may I suggest a small app for every teen cell phone. It reads: Trust but verify.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group