I have worked in this area for years and years, ever since 1995. The first sexting case I was aware of occurred in 1998, before cell phones could take or transmit images. We called it "sexing" in the days before cell phones and the term coined to combine sex and texting. A young teen in NY took a sexual video of herself and gave it to a boy she liked. He shared it with the world.
Now, as MTV and Associated Press polls show that 2/3's of sexting is coerced, and those involved in sexting are 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide, we have to make this a priority.
But how do we advised policymakers? Do we ask them to decriminalize all creation, sharing or possession of images that legally constitute child pornography? If not, what do we want them to do?
Sexting that occurs consensually between teens who are involved can be treated like consensual teen sex with another teen, by amending the child pornography laws to match the statutory rape exemptions for consensual teen to teen sex. But what about those who maliciously spread the images to others, either to get revenge for the teen in the image breaking up with them, or because they want to ruin the reputation of the teen in the image.
In Canada they give limited immunity for the teens involved in the taking and initial sharing of the image, those making up the intimate relationship. Once it moves beyond them, it becomes criminal.
But not all sexting is consensual. A ten year old I know was extorted into taking a sexual image for a few thirteen year olds, threatened with sexual assault if she didn't comply. That's not sexting. That is aggravated sexual assault.
Lawyers do this all the time, so do policymakers. We look at a problem and craft a solution when laws are needed. We can set parameters and help prosecutors understand when community service is best, or counsling is needed, or the teen being charged needs to be treated as a criminal.
Some people think that we shouldn't be ciminalizing "dumb" behavior by teens. But we do all the time. If the drink and drive, it's "dumb" and criminal. If they steal, use a weapon, sell drugs, etc. it's a crime.
What we need to do is remind them of this. Education, awareness, peer-advisors, getting the cell phone companies involved, the digital video and still camera companies involved and the online providers involved...they are all crucial. We need to train prosecutors, judges, law enforcement, etc.
We need to support programs such as MTV's athinline.org campaign. We need to join forces. WiredSafety, the charity I run, has created a coalition called the Stop Cyberbullying Coalition. It handles all aspects of cyberbullying, including sextbullying (when teens spread the images to hurt someone). Our KID team, "kids in danger" team will continue its 15 year quest to stop sexual exploitation of minors.
It isn't justice when one case results in a teen going to jail or having to register as a sex offender for 40+ years, while the same set of facts results in a slap pon the wrist somewhere else. So, we need ot chage the laws. But "decriminalizing" sexting as a blanket policy without looking at the circumstances, whether the actions were predatory, malicious or purely consensual isn't the way. Careful, thoughtful, smart people need to joint forces to find the right way. No kneejerk reactions. But creating exemptions to the law that allow for community service, mandated counseling or no charges under the right circumstances, while giving law enforcement the tools to stop predatory, threatening and true sexual exploitation is.
My 5 sexting tips for teens:
1. If you receive a sexual image of a minor, even if you know them, delete it.
2. Don't take an image you don't want your parents, the police, your principal or a predator to see.
3. What you post online stays online together.
4. If you think what you store on your cell phone is private and no one can access it - think again. How carefully do you guiard it? Do others ever use it? Are you sure your kid brother or your parents aren't "checking things out"?
5. If you love him, bake him cookies, don't send him a sext. And if you love her, don't ask for one.