The Criminalization of a Generation
About ten years ago I received a t-shirt from the October 22 Coalition. The back of the shirt read “Stop the Criminalization of a Generation.” The Coalition’s focus is on police brutality, but the slogan can, unfortunately, be applied to many other situations. This past weekend, for example, I read a story about “sexting.” For those that don’t know, sexting is using text messaging for sexual material. A contributor to The Urban Dictionary has this to say about the word, “a word that the media made up after some Greensburg Salem school district’s principals invaded the students privacy by taking their phone and then felt the need to go through the students messages and then reported it to the police.”
The problem for district attorneys is when teenagers begin sending nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves to lovers, friends, or other random mistakes. Minors taking provocative pictures of themselves are no longer experimenting with their sexuality and bodies, they are now creator-victims of child pornography.
The victim aspect of the scenario comes into play because these pictures rarely stay with the intended recipient. In some cases they have been spread throughout entire schools and even to other school districts. At least one parent blames “sexting” for her daughter’s suicide. This daughter took a photo of herself that was intended to be seen by one set of eyes. Before she could fully grasp what was going on, the picture had spread throughout the school. The mother explains that it spread so far that the daughter had a hard time going anywhere without being ridiculed or even bullied. The mother is blaming the school and police for not “doing something.” But what can they do? Once that picture is sent, it is sent. Does she really want to punish everybody who forwarded the picture? Is it really a crime for a 16 year old to look at pictures of a 17 year old?
My intention is not to ridicule the mother or the 17 year old daughter. Both experienced hell. However, we should try to learn something from this.
Let’s stop demonizing sex and sexuality. Youth are going to experiment, especially with their bodies. It’s much better to provide a safe space then to demonize or even criminalize their actions. Adults need to listen and support youth while they are growing up. Talk to them about sex, drugs, and major life decisions. Sharing a “sexy” picture with a lover isn’t the worst thing in the world, but do realize that you no longer control who sees it once you lose posession. The risk factor is magnified if the image is digital. Explaining this to youth would go a lot further than demonizing them for thinking about or engaging in “risky” behaviors. Actually, the best encouragement you can provide is to tell them not to do something without providing a clear explanation as to why.
Of course it gets worse. In many states, sexual education is banned in school. Parents argue they, not the school, should decide when and how their children learn about sex. Fair enough, but when that doesn’t happen, awful things happen. Too many parents shy away from talking about sex with their children. I would much rather have parents raise their children, but the unfortunate reality is that many don’t. They would rather have the school system do it for them. Others prefer to pretend that what they ignore isn’t happening (i.e. drugs, sex, fighting).
Rather than criminalizing youth for exploring their bodies, why not treat them like decency and respect? If a parent doesn’t want their child taking explicit digital photos of themselves, perhaps they should think twice before supplying them with a camera phone and unlimited text messaging. Talk to your children about the consequences of posting naked or provocative pictures of themselves on the internet. Don’t rely on the school or police to do it for you.
UPDATE 1 – “This week, a federal judge blocked a prosecutor from filing child pornography charges against three teenage girls in northeastern Pennsylvania over risque cell phone pictures they took of themselves. This respite from the bizarre “sexting” scandal allows time for a national dialogue on an issue that goes deeper than simple changes in technology.”
UPDATE 2 – Some people aren’t as lucky. “Phillip Alpert found out the hard way. He had just turned 18 when he sent a naked photo of his 16-year-old girlfriend, a photo she had taken and sent him, to dozens of her friends and family after an argument. The high school sweethearts had been dating for almost 2½ years. “It was a stupid thing I did because I was upset and tired and it was the middle of the night and I was an immature kid,” says Alpert.”
Update 3 – Via Black Oak Media “Oei says he showed the image to his boss, Principal Christine Forester, who told him to preserve a copy on his office computer for the investigation. A computer neophyte, Oei didn’t know how to transfer the image from the boy’s cell phone, so the teen sent the picture to Oei’s phone, and told him how to forward it to his work e-mail address. When the process was complete, Oei instructed the student to delete the image from his phone.”