When I started high school in 2000, hardly any of my friends even had cell phones. I didn’t get one until the end of my sophomore year, and it looked more like this than the slick, compact devices you see folks carrying around today. No texting, no video messaging, no cameras. Now, there’s sexting. It is exactly what it sounds like, plus no shortage of open-mouthed self portraits and duckface.

Unbeknownst to you, we're exchanging nudie pics! (photo from *ahem* http://hothardware.com)

My feelings surrounding the social connotations of teen sexting (and its recent media play) are complicated, to say the very least. On the one hand, I think people are entitled to do whatever they want with their own bodies, so long as their actions are respectful of themselves and others. On the other, I think sexting is one of the stupidest things a teenager can do, for obvious reasons.

Not only is the sharing of intimate texts particularly vulnerable to leakage or blackmail, but it also gives adult authority figures a tangible line of evidence to aid in the criminalization of teenage sexuality–particularly, of the female variety. Case in point: 13-year-old Hope Witsell, a Florida girl who hanged herself three months ago after a nude photo she sent to a crush got leaked to school officials, which led to widespread public shaming, school suspension, and ultimately her death. This and other stories of young people (especially girls) taunted and ridiculed by both their adult role models and their peers to the point of self-harm is a growing phenomenon, and I find the trend–and the punishments being given for it–profoundly disturbing.

In much of the U.S., sexting is a criminal offense that is sometimes treated, legally, the same as the distribution of child pornography. According to this criminal defense law site, punishments may include:

  • Up to ten (10) years in state prison for juveniles charged as adults
  • A lifetime as a registered sex offender
  • Court fines, victim restitution awards, and other legal fees

The fact that teens are being legally branded as pedophiles for (albeit recklessly) exploring their sexuality is completely messed up. However, the fact that more than a quarter of U.S, teens keep on doing it, even after knowing about sexting’s social repercussions, says a lot. Is teenage sexual expression such a moral gray area that kids are resorting to these potentially destructive avenues because they aren’t aware of any healthier, more sex-positive alternatives? Is our society’s Madonna/Whore double standard for teenage girls (e.g. it’s good to be sexy but it’s bad to have any “real” sexual desires) to blame for repercussions so disproportionate to the actions committed? And, is sexting even that bad in the first place?

Drawing from my own background, I know that if my parents had ever caught me sending anything remotely sexual to anyone, I would probably still be grounded. Nevertheless, I was also raised with enough self-respect to know where to draw the line and make the decisions that were right for me. I wonder if these young exhibitionists are making decisions based on what they really want, or based on what they feel they should be doing? And, how did this get to be such a huge issue?

I’m not pretending to have the answers, but it’s certainly food for thought.