Tech, Now + Beyond

What you didn’t know about your nudes

Many U.S. state laws do not reflect the difference between sexting and child pornography.

More likely than not, you’ve either sent a sext, gotten a sext or you’ve known someone who has done either. It’s a topic fraught with enough anxieties and dangers, from body image to cyberbullying, from sextorsion to college and job placement, from cybersecurity to revenge porn. But for teenagers, there’s another issue at stake.

Although these are complicated situations for adults, they have the right to expose their bodies in any way they’d like after the age of 18. Minors, however, are not in the same situation. The consequences of sending nude or semi-nude photos of yourself can be much more severe for minors. If you’re under the age of 18 and you’re sexting, chances are that you could be convicted under child pornography laws. Why? Because the legal system, as usual, has yet to catch up with modern times.

First, let’s look and how frequent teen sexting occurs. Almost 40 percent of all teens (defined as 13–19 year olds) are “sending or posting sexually suggestive messages,” according to the 2008 Sex and Tech survey from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. In a 2012 study by Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, over 25 percent of teens have sent a sext. With the increasing ubiquity of smartphones and apps like Snapchat and Kik, these numbers are sure to be on an uphill path.

But who are receiving these messages? Over 70 percent of these messages are sent to significant others, while over 20 percent of teenage girls and almost 40 percent sent them to someone they wanted to date or hook up with. Perhaps even more telling than these numbers is that almost 50 percent of male teens and 20 percent male teens have asked for sexts and 20 percent. Meanwhile, almost 70 percent of female teens have been asked, along with almost 45 percent of male teens.

When teenage girls were asked the reasons for sexting, 40 percent said they did it as a joke, 34 percent to feel sexy, and 12 percent feel pressured. These numbers show the commonality of sexting and give insight into why sexting occurs.

Many teens do not consider the consequences of sexting, and the biggest consequence is legal action. Because teenage sexting is technically covered under the definition of child pornography, the possession of sexts is considered possession of child pornography in many states. And these child pornography laws, as they should be, are incredibly harsh. Being charged with the crime can lead to years in prison as well as registration as a sex offender. For states that do not have distinct sexting laws, these are the charges that teens face when they sext.

But sexting isn’t child pornography, and our laws need to reflect that. There are a total of 18 states that have passed specific sexting laws, which lessen penalties to fines, misdemeanors, sexting educational classes, and family court. But the majority of the U.S. is still far behind. With one in four teens admitting to sexting, I would like to claim that these teens are not sex offenders. These are teenagers who are exploring their bodies, using the modern technology to do so, and misunderstanding the consequences of their actions.

Child pornography laws were developed for the purpose of convicting and deterring sexual predators from eliciting, distributing, and trafficking revealing or nude photos of children. Willingly sending naked photos of yourself as a minor is different, but it’s still irresponsible. But how would you know your life could be ruined by sending that photo? I doubt most people who send naked photos of themselves think that it’ll be sent around, although the numbers show a different story. They don’t think that it can be used against them. It’s not a fault in the person, but in the education.

Sexting should be a part of sexual education, something that’s desperately needed around the world and in the U.S. Teen sexting is not an issue of child pornography—and should never be treated as so—but a question of responsible usage of technology and sexual activity. Both of those are incredible hard to teach, but these issues will only get sticker if we’re not talking about them.