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Sexting: Consent and Violations

July 4, 2009

In the current issue of Black Oak Presents, Chris Lempa’s “The Criminalization of a Generation” includes a lot of excellent points about sexting and similar issues in the US. It is of course absurd to make “[m]inors taking provocative pictures of themselves” a criminal offense. Sex and sexuality should not be demonized or banned; sex education needs to be comprehensive and honest. Where I part ways with him, however, is in this statement regarding a sixteen-year old girl who killed herself after her nude pictures were passed around her school and she was teased and harassed about it:

The mother blames the school and police for not “doing something.” But what can they do? Once the 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 picture of a 17 year old?

When it comes to a case like this, the crime isn’t in looking. At least, it shouldn’t be. Every kid who sent the picture around knowing that the girl didn’t want it to be shared participated in violating the girl’s privacy, so what exactly would be wrong with punishing them? I could see arguing against criminal charges specifically but what would be wrong with suspension from school or at least detention? If Mr. Lempa wants to “learn something from this” maybe it should be that violations of a girl’s privacy and sexuality should be taken seriously.

Besides, the mother’s asking for something to have been done doesn’t necessarily mean she wanted everyone who sent the picture around punished: perhaps just the students who actively harassed the girl could have been punished or at least removed from the school environment until they could behave in a civil way.

Bullying and harassment take on all kinds of forms in schools; the use of sexting against a target is just a recent addition. No amount of sex education or acceptance of teen sexuality is going to stop this until adults make clear to students that making the school environment hostile for their peers is unacceptable. Educating teens about the risk of sharing images of themselves, as Mr. Lempa advocates, may take this tool away from harassers, but it won’t end harassment. To achieve that end, we need to focus on the behavior of the victimizers, not the victims. We also need to draw a bright line between consensual sexual activity among teens and those acts by which teens violate other teens.

  1. July 4, 2009 11:16 pm

    Seriously. I got harassed plenty in high school before anyone had ever invented camera phones.

  2. August 4, 2009 12:44 am

    Thanks for reading and commenting on my article. I apologize that I didn’t see your comments earlier. I agree with you that we shouldn’t blame the victim. I also agree that people who participate in bullying behavior should face some form of consequence. However, it becomes difficult when so many people are involved.

    It’s also difficult for the schools to deal with such an issue for a variety of reasons. On the most basic level is the fact that a lot of the forwarding and harassment probably happened outside of school. Another is that schools simply aren’t equipped to deal with such widespread behavior. The authorities could have told the perpetrators to stop, but then what? According to some reports the girl was harassed everywhere she went.

    This is a much larger issue than whether or not the schools or police can deal with these situations. The girl was being bullied (to death) because she expressed herself with someone that she cared about. She was them deemed an outcast, slut, etc because of this. She did nothing wrong. . .nothing. But the ageist, patriarchal system in which we lived deemed her to be immoral and deserving of public harassment. Unfortunately our society isn’t equipped to deal with the bullies that ultimately killed this poor girl. Those are the systems that I am trying to recreate.

    Thanks for your time.
    Chris Lempa

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