The Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017 may sound innocuous, but it’s actually the most outrageous bipartisan Congressional measure in years. Intended to close a loophole in child pornography law, its oppressive language threatens teenagers with lengthy prison sentences and sex-offender registration for “sexting” – sharing nude photos of themselves and each other. That may seem victimless, but it creates fodder for pedophiles and undercuts the innocence of children. So instead of jailing teens who sext, hit them where it hurts – take their phones away.
Members of Congress alarmed by the bill’s mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years plus sex offender registration tried to remove those provisions but failed, and two weeks ago the legislation passed by overwhelming margins (only 53 Democrats and two Republicans voted no). It’s now headed for the Senate.
Sexting has become common among teens, even unremarkable. A 2009 Pew study found that 8 percent of 17-year olds with cell phones have texted a sexually provocative image and 30 percent have received one. Media reports suggest that improved technology has only spread the practice.
Overzealous prosecutors in several states have applied child pornography laws to sexting teens. In response, state lawmakers who recognize that most sexting is just a reflection of youthful immaturity and naiveté have passed laws that no longer treat sexting as child pornography. Yet here comes Washington, DC threatening teens in every state with the old draconian approach.
Reactions to the bill range from that of the ACLU, which said child pornography laws exist only to prevent abuse of minors, not to criminalize youthful “sexual experimentation” to its sponsor, first-year Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), who defended it on the House floor with Biblical certitude: “In Scripture, Romans 13 refers to the governing authorities as ‘God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’ I, for one, believe we have a moral obligation, as any just government should, to defend the defenseless.”
But the proposed law has been largely met with silence from politicians and the media – and if citizens don’t stop it, American children will soon face ruined lives for youthful mistakes.
Still, while this particular bill is extreme, some legislative response is appropriate because sexting has real harms. Most perniciously, it fuels the sexual underbelly of child pornography. Sure, sometimes the photos involved stay private, but many times they flood the market with new images of naked children.
There’s little research about how many teen sexts go public, be we know adults distribute them quite freely. According to research conducted at the University of Alabama, 23 percent of single adults who sexted shared the photos, usually more than once. The most appealing images then zip all over the web. In fact, according to the Internet Watch Foundation 88 percent of 12,000 sexual selfies made by young people under the age of 21 had been stolen (often from social media) and posted on porn websites.
Once released into the Internet swamp, pedophiles can easily access them. In fact, men who have otherwise avoided child pornography may be enticed by underage sexts, with their increased quantity, quality, and ease of access, while justifying them as harmless since on some level they were created “with consent.” But pedophiles don’t just collect and “consume” underage porn. Sometimes they search for those pictured, blackmailing or harassing them for more photos or physical contact. Or they use child pornography to groom victims and make them more vulnerable to molestation.
In fact, serious scholarly evidence suggests child pornography is a gateway to molestation, which some pedophiles readily acknowledge. One convicted child molester told The New York Times that looking at sexual images of children fuels his desire: “There is no way I can look at a picture of a child on a video screen and not get turned on by that and want to do something about it… I didn’t want it to happen, but it was going to happen.”
Online parent resources and other discussions of sexting occasionally mention the pedophilia risk, but they limit consideration of sexting’s harms to the teens themselves, who may face ridicule, shame, and future problems with employment and romance. Damage to the already rapidly disappearing innocence of the nation’s youth goes unmentioned.
Yet sexting can be a precursor to sexual activity between underage teens – which is harmful and illegal. Further, whereas teenage boys once put mirrors on their shoes to look up the skirts of female classmates, they now see some of them fully unclothed. In fact, boys who collect naked pictures of classmates don’t necessarily consume them as pornography. Instead, they see it as a hobby, like keeping a stamp collection. One girl told The Atlantic that “guys would pile them up… it was more of a baseball-card, showing-off kind of thing.”
Surely that degrades the nature of the high school experience. The days of panty raids, mooning, and dirty bathroom-stall limericks as the worst youthful sexual hijinks are gone forever. But come on. If parents and other adults won’t rein in the normalization of casual sexual voyeurism among the prom-queen set, what good are they, anyway?
However, “education” alone will not curtail the problem. Sexting is too entrenched in high school culture. And children will scoff at threats of jail time, certain that adults would never follow through. But the specter of losing their phones for a year will get their attention.
Enforcing such a punishment could be tough (even if service providers cooperate, how do you keep burner phones away from convicted teens?), but the threat would still have an important benefit: as a powerful weapon against peer pressure: “No, I can’t send you that kind of photo; I don’t want to risk losing my phone!”
Since prison is totally incommensurate with the harm of underage sexting, another remedy is necessary. For many teens, sexting arises from a mixture of hormones and Androids they find hard to control. Since you can’t take their hormones away, there’s only one other choice.