House Bill 2189 in the Pennsylvania legislature is a proposal to make “sexting,” the act of electronically sending or receiving nude photos, illegal for minors. While it sounds as though the bill is simply an adherence to child pornography laws and an effort to prevent teenagers from harming their futures, its consequences may be much more harmful than beneficial. As the Patriot-News editorial board notes:
Proponents suggest they want to help youth avoid felony prosecutions under existing child pornography laws, but HB 2189 does not prevent prosecutors from charging children with child pornography. Instead, it exposes kids to an additional crime, thereby widening the net and potentially bringing thousands more kids into the juvenile justice system, risking permanent criminal records, removal from their homes and disrupted educations.
In addition, implementing harsh laws and punishments for sexting means children ages 13-17 could lose eligibility for things such as the military, college loans, and future employment endeavors because of the felony charge on their record. This seems like an unduly harsh punishment for teenagers experimenting with sexuality via modern technology. And it would affect a lot of teenagers:
Recent research suggests that up to 20 percent of all teenagers have consensually sent or received some form of sexual message via text or e-mail.
Under HB 2189, 20% of teenagers will not only run the risk of their sent or received images becoming public (and thus causing embarrassment or worse), but will also compromise their future plans in many ways. This will not be an effective deterrent for teenagers – we all remember the days of disregarding authority and ignoring potential, vague consequences.
Instead, some organizations are focusing on educating teens about sexting and the potential consequences. MTV has started an initiative, A Thin Line, to promote awareness and education about sexting. A Thin Line features teens explaining why they sexted and how the picture came back to haunt them. Straightforward and often humorous commercials such as these are a much better avenue to a teenager’s mind and behavior, whereas the distant threat of legislation and prosecution will likely do nothing to dissuade them.
This legislation comes on the heels of a few court cases prosecuting girls for “sexting” while not punishing the teenage boys disseminating the message amongst themselves. Examine, for instance, Miller v. Skumanick, in which twelve-year-old girls accused of sexting were made to choose between a “re-education course” designed by the district attorney of Wyoming County, George Skumanick (which included writing essays, taking “courses” designed by Mr. Skumanick on “what it means to be a girl in today’s society”, etc.), or face possible felony/child pornography charges. All of this took place over images of the girls wearing jeans and bras taken by a female friend. Parents of some of the girls involved in this case contacted the ACLU and obtained a restraining order against further action by Mr. Skumanick; the case has been heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.
Interestingly, none of the boys involved in the case received this ultimatum from Mr. Skumanick or any threat of punishment whatsoever. Is this a case, then, of an adult male forcing his own personal morals and beliefs about what is or is not “appropriate” behavior for teenage girls? Pennsylvania’s ACLU blog post states:
Ultimately, that’s what this case [Miller v. Skumanick] comes down to: one man’s view on how a young woman should conduct herself. The boys who traded the photos bear no responsibility and require no re-education. Instead the girls are threatened with felony charges and life-long registration as sex offenders. To apply such a penalty, designed to protect minors against exploitation, is a grotesque misapplication – and that’s once again assuming that the photographs in question could possibly be construed as pornographic… as ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Witold Walczak puts it, “prosecutors should not be using heavy artillery like child-pornography charges to teach that lesson.”
Sexting legislation cherry-picks whom it will punish and in what way—unfairly exposing girls to over-the-top threats and possible charges while maintaining the “boys will be boys” mantra. Unless some form of coherent and standardized legislation is developed, it will continue to harm young girls.