Should We Fight Sexting or Sexism?

Crossposted at Amplify

As the ridiculous ruckus over the sexting scandal in Tunkhannok, Pennsylvania grows to a din, I find myself in disbelief. 

For those of you who have managed to avoid the sexting controversy, I’ll give a brief summary: some photos of semi-nude and scantily clad teenage and pre-teen girls as young as eleven surfaced in a rural Pennsylvania high school.  This apparently provided grounds for the District Attorney to consider charging the teenagers, (some of whom are children, really), on the justification that they were partaking in child pornography.  But, since he was so nice, he decided to give them the option of attending an “education program” (whatever that means).  Simple as that: educate or incarcerate.  Last month, three of the teenagers in question and their parents turned the tables, teamed up with the ACLU, and sued the District Attorney for violating the teenagers’ right to freedom of expression, and for interfering with their parents’ abilities to raise their children in the way they see fit. 

First of all, let me firmly state that the “sexting” in this case should not constitute child pornography.  Some of the young people who risk facing charges at the hands of the DA appeared in pictures without having ever sent them.  If I have some pictures of myself and haven’t shared them with anyone else, shouldn’t that be considered private property?  Even those who sent the pictures are not invoking immense damage worthy of criminal status.  Sure, maybe some emotional wreckage will ensue, but nothing that will result compares to actual child pornography or charges of such activity.  If anything, the charge diminishes the seriousness of real child pornography, which is a legitimate cause for concern.  The Pennsylvania scandal should not be considered in the same manner as we would regard an adult disseminating nude pictures of children with the intention of evoking pedophilic pleasure from other adult viewers. 

Many, even most, adults (the District Attorney and hordes of the media included), fail to recognize young people’s motive behind “sexting.”  And while the term “sexting” implies big, scary, evil, sex via text message, it is usually (and certainly in the Pennsylvania case), nothing of the sort.  In fact, one of the girls charged had appeared in a photograph wearing a bikini.  Hello??  I think that the District Attorney needs to log on to facebook, and then maybe he’ll see the ubiquity and lack of titillation associated with girls in bathing suits.  In the summer, half of my friends’ facebook profile pictures show them posing in bikinis.  Are we child pornographers?  No. 

Even the more revealing photographs containing nudity should not be treated or charged as criminally pornographic.  Inappropriate, maybe.  A bad idea, probably—but it is natural for young adults to want to explore their bodies and to share their revelations and changes with others.  Adults’ concerns about privacy are legitimate ones, but they should be treated as parent/child discussions, not as legal ones. 

One of my biggest beefs with the Pennsylvania “sexting” controversy is its implicit sexism that mostly flies under the radar.  Articles, parents, and community leaders assume the photographed girls to be sluts, whores, dirty, and altogether incapable of making decisions for themselves.  It has provoked an outpouring of paternalistic reprimands, and desperate efforts to protect young girls from the greedy claws of sex and pornography.  I understand parents’ fears about the possible repercussions of the circulation of nude photos, but again, it is not the responsibility of the state to infantilize young women and turn their moral compasses straight by referring them to a mandatory “education program.”  Additionally, one Pennsylvania teenager who appeared in a “sext” said that parents were given the opportunity to survey the pictures in question at a parent meeting at the County Courthouse on February 12th.  Parents checking out nude photos of their children’s friends?  That’s child pornography if I ever saw it.

If I were in charge of the school, I would have refrained from contacting the District Attorney in the first place, and hosted informational assemblies about the risks of widespread dissemination of photos over the Internet.  With a little comprehensive, preventative education, the law didn’t need to come into play as far as I can tell.

The sexting scare has essentially just given bored, paranoid, middle class parents of pre-teens one more irrational worry to obsess over, and legal and school officials one more opportunity to exert undue influence and power over perfectly capable girls.  Good luck to the ACLU and those parents who were smart enough to see through the DA’s exaggerations and take action against a complete misrepresentation of teenage hormones gone a bit too far.  

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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