Both adults and teens engage in sexting, or the exchange of sexually explicit messages and images by cellphone or over the internet. Some surveys put the rate of adult sexting at between 15 and 22 percent. Among teens, perhaps 20 and 28 percent have engaged in sexting. Of those who had, about 70 percent were sexting with an intimate partner.
It's not particularly surprising. Between consenting adults, the activity is perfectly legal, and many teens don't know they're doing anything illegal. Teens are just learning about adult relationships and are exploring their own sexual needs and desires. Sexting probably strikes many as a naughty, titillating way to show your trust in your romantic partner. What it does not sound like is child pornography.
The shocking truth is that teens caught sexting are often charged with child pornography, even though the purpose of child pornography laws was to protect minors from sexual exploitation. When teens take explicit photos of themselves and their partners, they aren't being exploited.
Yes, it's true that sexting can lead to troubling consequences. Today's romantic partner may be tomorrow's evil ex. You simply can't be sure that explicit texts and emails won't be shared, and that could lead to deep embarrassment and shame. The images can make their way into the hands of teachers, school administrators, parents, police and prosecutors.
It's bad enough if the adults in a teen's life find out about the sexts. When police and prosecutors become involved, a teen who has made an error in judgment can be prosecuted for a major felony. Each individual photo is viewed as a count, and multiple counts could lead to a sentence of 10 years in prison.
On top of that felony sentence, teens convicted of sexting are also required to register as sex offenders for as long as 10 years. They will have to comply with other states' sex offender laws if they leave Washington for college, a job or even a vacation. Violating the sex offender registration requirement can lead to further criminal charges.
Is this really justice for a teen who made a mistake? Is this kind of mistake so serious that we're willing to expose minors to our harshest criminal penalties?
At least 20 states exempt juvenile sexting from being considered child pornography. Washington, unfortunately, is not one of them. Those laws should not be used to derail innocent teens' lives. While teen sexting is problematic, the harm it causes simply isn't the equivalent of the harm of child pornography in type or degree.