Friday, March 27, 2009

"Sexting": The New Sex Moral Panic...or Web Porn 2.0??

Much has been made in the media recently on the supposed dangers of "sexting", the phenomenom of using cellphones using "3G" wireless technology to send and receive sexually explicit images and text to each other. It has particularly become grounds for recent well-publicized prosecutions of individuals (especially teens) under "child pornography" laws for sending such images over their wireless phone lines. One such prosecution in New York State drew the unexpected disapproval -- of the prosecution, not the child -- of the mother of the child who inspired "Meaghan's Law" (see story here).

And then there was the story (which I documented here) of Jessie Logan, the young woman who ended up committing suicide last year after being severely harrassed and bullied by her classmates after one of her nude photos ended up being "sextexted" over the Internet. That particular case has been unsurprisingly exploited by the dominant MSM and by "child security experts" as a crutch to ban "sexting" as a means of "protecting children" from the apparent harm of sexual images.

Fortunately, though, saner and less ideologically motivated voices have come forth to debunk the scare tactics and excessive panic over teen "sexting". Dr. Marty Klein, the emminent sex therapist and social commentator, has recently come forth (via here, h/t to Aspasia at LaLibertine's Salon) )to defend "sexting" as a form of simple adolescent human interaction that should not be prosecuted.

Arresting these kids for the creation, possession, or distribution of child pornography is a perversion of the law. It turns the 15-year-old who poses into both a victim and a perpetrator (what kind of law does that?). It defines a stupid boyfriend as a snarling predator.

And by watering down the definition of “child pornography,” it undermines our attempts to reduce the actual sexual exploitation of children, and to catch and treat those who would really harm our kids. Real child pornography is a record of child abuse. “Sexting” is a record of adolescent hijinks. Lumping the two together reflects adult anxiety about young people’s sexuality, not a sophisticated understanding of it.

And what about the supposed “dangers” of “sexting”? School counselors, police, even Bill O’Reilly all agree that kids’ lives could be ruined—by insane laws making them lifetime criminals, not by any actual harm. “These photos will be on the internet forever,” we’re warned—yes, and quickly forgotten. And in twenty years, everyone’s physician, accountant, and local sheriff will have nude photos of themselves somewhere on the web. Welcome to the 21st century.

Ironically, the campaign against “sexting” holds kids to a higher standard of judgment than adults. With adults, we generally don’t criminalize poor judgment unless it involves coercion or demonstrable harm. If you take nude photos of your wife, and send them to her friends the day after your divorce, she can call you a bastard (which you would be), but she can’t sue you. She certainly can’t get you on a sex offender registry that lumps you in with rapists and child molesters. But that’s what angry adults like Cynthia Logan want.

And this week, the alternative online daily CounterPunch posted an essay by author David Rosen which basically repudiates the entire argument for censoring "sexting" on its face, as well as dissecting concerns about the Obama Administration adopting such censorship. An excerpt:

These are but a few examples of a new and growing social phenomenon known as sexting. Adolescents are sending and receiving explicit snapshots or video clips of themselves or other teens from their cellphones or handheld PDAs like a Blackberry. The original image is then often resent to an ever-expanding universe of viewers.

Sexting is a post-modern form of flirting, a game of sexual show-&-tell; so far, it hasn’t involved sexual predators. A recent study indicates that one in five teens have either sent or received such images. [see “Nails in the Coffin: Last Gasps of the Culture Wars?,” CounterPunch, January 30-February 1, 2009]

What makes these incidents most troubling, especially the ones on the Cape and in Greenburg-Salem, is that the participants can face felony child pornography charges. The Greenburg girls, who are 14- and 15-years and allegedly took nude or semi-nude photos of themselves, face charges of manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography; and the boys, who are 16- and 17-years and distributed the images, have been charged with possession.

Each generation re-imagines the erotic. In this process, notions of the pornographic or the obscene are challenged and changed. And in the process, the generation is changed, its erotic sensibility remade, thus shifting the sexual landscape. The eroticism of today’s teens is not that of their grandparents, let alone their parents.

Today’s popular culture is based on aesthetically rich, Web 2.0 digital connectivity. This digital culture engenders a new erotic sensibility. CDs and streaming video extend traditional forms of erotic representation of a book or a film-TV program. Web 2.0 social networking opens communications to two-way exchanges, group associations and shared experiences. Sexting extends the functionality of mobile communications by adding images and, in the process, expands popular erotic sensibility.

The entire essay is a rich history of how sexual imagery and media is transformed through technology and personal demand, and how attempts to control and/or censor such media simply end up being as much ineffective as it is damaging to the principles of free speech and expression.


  1. I totally agree that prosecuting sexting as "child pornography" is a bad idea... but I do want to be sure that recognizing this doesn't prevent us from punishing people who later distribute pictures or text they've been "sexted" as part of a vendetta.

    I recognize that your "making a boyfriend look like a predator" probably means "suggesting that a similar-aged boyfriend 'consumes child pornography'" for getting a girlfriend's "sexts," and I agree that that's bad.

    But I think that in addition to denouncing that, we need to be scrupulous in a) also denouncing boyfriends' distribution-for-revenge and b) talking about how we think such stuff *should* be legally handled in addition to how it *shouldn't*.

  2. I just read another story today about two girls in Pennsylvania threatened with "sexual abuse against a minor" (themselves) for taking pictures of each other at a sleepover in their bras in pajama pants. Again, the sad thing is that the adults are so blinded by their misplaced hysteria that they can't see the ridiculousness of the situation.

    @Trinity, re: "talking about how we think such stuff *should* be legally handled in addition to how it *shouldn't*."

    The way it's handled in any other situation concerning blackmail. There are already laws against that. It doesn't matter if said blackmail is written or in photographs or video. Extortion is still against the law.

  3. Trin:

    Personally, I think that the solution to your concerns should be the same that should be applied to adult situations of sexual imagery: unless specifically stated in model releases or contracts, the images should remain the property of the subject, and any use of those photos without the expressed consent of the person being featured should be prohibited by any means. That would pretty much eliminate much of the "extortion" threat.

    The really BIG issue, though, is the threat of what is basically private, personal conversation (as private as two-way communication can be) being saved and intercepted for adverse use by a third party. I don't really think that even the notion of "protecting children" justifies such broad state intervention into what is mostly private conversation featuring consenting people (even if they aren't quite adults).

    A far better approach would be to establish safe zones for adolescents where they can communicate with each other without the intervention of adults, as well as safe zones within cyberspace (an example being the proposed dot kids domain) where younger kids who may not be ready to be exposed to more mature expression can go to avoid the pitfalls of "sexting". That would be far preferable to the present attempt to dumb down the entire Web 2.0/3G/Internet experience to the level of five year olds.