Teenage foolishness shouldn't be a crime


"Sexting" doesn't belong in the state's penal code.

Posted: June 24, 2010

Last year, officials in Northeastern Pennsylvania's Tunkhannock Area School District found photos of three scantily clad girls on the phones of their male classmates. In response, Wyoming County District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. threatened to file child pornography charges unless the three, along with 17 other "sext" messagers, took a class on "what it means to be a girl in today's society." A conviction could have put the girls in prison and forced them to register as sex offenders.

Fortunately, the ACLU sued, winning an injunction against the DA that was recently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia. And in November, the people of Wyoming County voted Skumanick out of office.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) has introduced legislation to make "sexting" a misdemeanor, and State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) has a bill that would make it a summary offense, similar to a traffic ticket.

Many other states have tried to enable milder punishments for sexting with such laws, and it's great that some in Harrisburg agree it's heavy-handed to charge teens as child pornographers for circulating racy photos of themselves among their peers. But Greenleaf's and Grove's proposals are still off base.

Teenage sexuality has long been a cause of public concern. Every generation of parents thinks its teens' indiscretions are more dangerously unhinged than what they did as kids. John Waters' film Desperate Living captures this neurosis when a hysterical mother discovers a group of small children playing doctor and flees from the room screaming, "Oh, God, the children are having sex!"

On WHYY's Radio Times, Grove strove to explain the nuances of what might qualify as "graphic nudity for the intent of sexual gratification" under his legislation: "Maybe a girl would send a picture of her chest to her best friend and say, 'Do I need a boob job?' That wouldn't fall under this," he said. "It would be a girlfriend sending it to her boyfriend with maybe more salacious commentary. ..."

Grove is clearly a detail-oriented guy. But do we really want principals, district attorneys, and police officers to take on the creepy task of making such distinctions?

In March, a young woman sued the same Wyoming County school district after a principal confiscated her phone - which she had used on campus in violation of a school rule - found nude photos, and turned them over to the DA.

"I was absolutely horrified and humiliated to learn that school officials, men in [the] DA's office, and police had seen naked pictures of me," the student said in an ACLU statement. "What they did is the equivalent of spying on me through my bedroom window."

The student alleges that one detective told her she should have waited until she turned 18 and sent the photos to Playboy. Skumanick coerced her into taking the "girl in today's society" class.

The idea of such photos circulating through the male-dominated justice system is disturbing. It's a stupid idea for teens to text or e-mail naked photos to friends or young paramours, as they can easily go viral, landing on the phones of an entire class or some creep's laptop. But that doesn't mean prosecutors should get involved.

"To decriminalize [sexting] would basically be to say 'It's OK to do this' to our youth," Grove argued. That's ridiculous. Making something a crime is not the only way society can express disapproval.

Moreover, making a behavior a crime doesn't always dissuade people from engaging in it. Consider marijuana and alcohol prohibition.

The unchecked circulation of explicit photos really points to the need for comprehensive Internet education to help young people cultivate a regard for privacy.

A recent study asserts that one in five teenagers has sexted. And adults have a problem, too, judging by the bevy of websites on which angry ex-boyfriends post heretofore-intimate photos and videos as a cruel form of retribution.

Our society has taken on countless new communication devices, but we're still depending on the rules that guided us through the age of snail mail and landlines.

We also need to talk more about sex, whether it be of the physical or electronic variety. Sex ed in Philly and throughout the state is a shambles, which should be a scandal given the high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

The Healthy Youth Act (House Bill 1163) would require comprehensive sex education, mandating discussion of both abstinence and contraception. Scheduled for a vote this week in Harrisburg, it was postponed due to the annual budget impasse.

But this is a conversation that shouldn't be put off. Let's talk about sex, and let's dispense with the hysteria.

Daniel Denvir is a freelance journalist who lives in Philadelphia. He can be reached at daniel.denvir@gmail.com.

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