Friday, January 29, 2010

On Sexting and Exploitation

Here we go again with the whole Sexting thing:

The idea behind sexting, or sending a nude picture via a cell phone text, is not so new. Children played doctor long before grade school students were armed with cell phones capable of snapping photos. They just didn't record an image of the offense.

But technology has created a trail of evidence. Children and teens are capturing nude photos or videos of each other and sending them from friend to friend, and that's landing them in court.

"I think there has always been a sort of, you show me yours and I'll show you mine,
and a curiosity there," Porter County, Ind., Prosecutor Brian Gensel said. "The
problem now is the stakes are so much higher because if a juvenile sends a picture of themselves to someone else, well, that can be disseminated now to the entire world within minutes."

And that's distribution of child pornography, Gensel said.

Last week, two middle school students in Valparaiso, Ind., were caught sending nude pictures of themselves to each other on their cell phones. The students were caught when the 13-year-old girl's cell phone rang in class, and her teacher confiscated it, according to a police report. The girl cried that she would get in trouble because a 12-year-old boy sent her a "dirty picture."

The boy sent the girl a picture of his genitals and requested that she do the same, the report said. The girl then texted him a picture of her naked, police said.

The students have been charged with child exploitation and possession of child pornography, both felonies.

I know this issue has already been discussed in a number of feminist forums, but it's gotten me thinking today. I think the phrasing of the prosecuting attorney in this case is particularly telling regarding the issue that is really bothering prosecutors enough to make them file charges in these cases.

Let's think about this for a minute. The students are being charged with child exploitation and possession of child pornography. It's instructive here to think about why we have child exploitation and child pornography laws to begin with. In our culture, children are perceived as being particularly vulnerable and thus in need of protection from older, more powerful members of society. It's less likely that a child will understand the sexual interactions an adult might wish to engage them in, and that the child will feel that s/he can say no (or that s/he will understand the implications of an action). So we have laws in place to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful. In other words, there's a non-reciprocal relationship involved that heightens the risk of exploitation. So far so good. But in sexting cases, the non-reciprocal, exploitive relationship is posited to exist between the child and herself (or himself). And here's where things start to become nonsensical. Can a person have a non-reciprocal relationship with themselves? Can a person exploit themselves? Note that this is a different question than whether one can ever fully consent to being exploited by others. If exploitation requires a non-reciprocal relationship, then self-exploitation appears to be logically impossible.

So what is really going on here then? Well... the thought process of this attorney (and prosecutors in other sexting cases) actually seems to start with the existence of the offending images in the world and work backward. Something like this:
  1. OMG, there are pics of naked children/teens in the world.
  2. The only reason why there would be pics of naked children/teens in the world is if someone was distributing child pornography and therefore exploiting a child.
  3. There is someone who was distributing child pornography and therefore exploiting a child, and that person is the child herself.
  4. Therefore, she is guilty of exploiting herself and distributing child pornography.

This explains a number of things. First of all, it explains why the attorneys in these cases aren't bothered in the least by the deeply problematic claim that children can exploit themselves. After all, there are naughty pictures in the world, and the only way to explain the existence of naughty pictures is with a narrative of exploitation and pornography (in their worldview, apparently). And this also reveals the profound panic that the existence of pictures of naked children evokes in our culture. You get the sense that the mere existence of naked girlflesh (or boyflesh) is so shocking that it can only have been the result of some crime - there's no other possible explanation for it in this worldview. (Incidentally, this line of thinking also seems to have informed the recent case of the WalMart photo center employee who called child protective services on a couple in Arizona for taking bathtime pics of their kids.)

It's also telling that (in other sexting cases) there's zero interest in prosecuting the other students (most of whom are presumably boys) that have distributed the images to their classmates. I mean, if half the kids in the school suddenly have these images on their phones, weren't there a lot of people both in possession of and distributing the pictures? Why aren't they being prosecuted? I'm gonna go ahead and guess that this one is rooted in the old "women as sexual gatekeepers" meme. After all, if girls wouldn't take nekkid pics of themselves to begin with then the boys (who are really just being boys, the poor dears) wouldn't be in possession of nekkid pics. That's logical, right?

The other thing that strikes me from this particular article is the contrast between the sort of innocent "playing doctor" of the good old days versus the infliction of your naked image upon the masses that occurs in sexting cases. The significant changes that have accompanied recent technological advances are certainly things we should talk about with kids, and something they should be aware of. But charging them with felonies, labeling them as sex offenders, etc seems like the most ridiculous way to deal with this reality of modern-day life imaginable. Seriously, if you sat down and asked yourself "what's the worst possible way I can handle the impulsiveness, lack of foresight, and poor judgment inherent in adolescent sexuality," this is the answer you would come up with. Or maybe abstinence-only sex ed. Or both. They're cut from the same fabric, after all.


  1. Great post! I also enjoyed this one: Sexting and What it Means to be a Girl.

  2. diamondsforhorses1/29/2010

    This is also a really weird case because it's hard to know who's supposed to be injured by sexting. Is it the girl whose naked image gets sent all over school? The boys who see the pic? And if it's the girl who is being damaged by it, how does charging her with a felony help?

    It's astounding all the way around.

  3. There are no answers to these questions because the world isn't logical. You're assuming that people (and culture) are logic-driven, or at least minimally rational. But they're not, so none of this will ever make sense in a purely rational framework.

  4. It's also interesting that in the sexting cases that have gotten a lot of press, the prosecuting attorneys all express very conservative ideology as a justification for charging the kids. It makes you wonder if this is happening in other places too, but the prosecutor there just doesn't adhere to such a strict slut-shaming view.

  5. Anonymous1/30/2010

    If I were a kid who was dumb enough to sext, and I got not only caught but arrested and charged, I would let it go to trial. Jury trial even. And if I were a defense lawyer for one of them, I would advise exactly that.

    You know why? Because then the child can make absolutely sure the jury knows that they were screwing around and didn't know what they were doing and now they REALLY regret and *tear* they'd never do it again, if they could take it back they would *teartear* and now the Big Scary Mean DA's Office is being a bully and they don't understand why they're being put under the same label as a pedophile when they're only 13 and didn't mean anything by it and and *baaaaawl*

    You know why?

    Because a.) it would appeal to common sense, as this post does. and b.) because juries have an extremely hard time believing someone is a nasty, horrible perp and a victim at the same time. And since these kids are inevitably not doing anything all that bad (they aren't ACTUALLY exploiting a child, they're just stupidly photographing themselves nude because they don't realize how bad that could turn out), I think they would win.

  6. Gods, this is just so incredibly stupid.

    I think the people who are trying to convict these kids of a crime should be sued for emotional abuse of a minor. Even though that may not be legally possible, I wish in my heart of hearts that it were.

    These people are heartless morons.

  7. Anonymous6/13/2011

    I know I'm really late to this, but this is an awesome post!

  8. Anonymous6/15/2011

    I think prosecutors want to see the forbidden pictures personally and opening a case is the way to do it.