Focus sexting laws on teen welfare

Guest Editorial
For people of a certain age, the practice of sexting may be the most confounding aspect of the digital age. Why would people — particularly young women — email intimate pictures of themselves that are so easily distributed across the Internet?

But it happens. Sometimes, an original photo is sent willingly but then is re-sent across the Web, where it will last for an indefinite lifetime. Sometimes, the distribution of the photo is even more ugly, as when a woman is photographed against her will or without her knowledge.

In any instance, it is a contemporary act that has serious consequences. And it is one that state lawmakers and law enforcement officers are struggling to comprehend, much less appropriately address.

In some cases, sending such photos can subject a person to prosecution under child pornography laws. Such punishment can mean imprisonment and lifetime membership on public sex offender lists. As troubling as the practice can be, that often seems like over-the-top penalty for what can be a stupid teenage decision.

Emily Bazelon, writing for, makes a strong argument that state laws should take great effort to specifically address sexting by minors. She acknowledges the bad behavior involved — she writes of two young women who committed suicide by hanging after sexually humiliating photos of themselves were posted online, both following apparent sexual assaults.

That’s obviously serious, and the incidents have justifiably created a sense of outrage in the Californian and Canadian communities where they occurred.

Nonetheless, Bazelon argues for a sense of perspective that recognizes the age of the offenders and differences between consensual sexting and photos sent with malicious intent.

A teen, often a girl, who sends a revealing photo of herself to a boy has made a stupid but hardly felonious decision. It’s a different story for the boy who sends that photo along, particularly if the intent is to embarrass her. There is also a third group, although Bazelon didn’t include them in her article. That would be the classmates who open their cell phones to find they have received an inappropriate photo. What is their responsibility at that point? And how should they be treated if they also send the photos along, or if they merely fail to erase them from their phone’s memory?

It should be clear that laws dealing with teen sexting should be far different if the person with the inappropriate photos is an adult.

The next level that laws should address is by far the most serious. These involve cases such as the allegations in the two suicides where there were photos taken and distributed of nonconsensual sex. Although not all Republican political candidates fully recognize it, rape is rape. And there are laws in place to deal with minors who commit sexual assault. But there should also be age-appropriate laws that deal with electronically transmitted pictures of sex acts.

Such laws are difficult, particularly if it gives the law enforcement community discretion, which must be the case if malicious intent is to be considered. That opens the door for charges of inconsistent prosecution. But such leeway is necessary and can be accomplished with purposely written laws.

That should be the goal of lawmakers of all states, including Michigan.