Sexting New Frontier For Cyberbullies

You should probably just not sext. Let’s be honest here, the whole situation is pretty awkward, not to mention more than a little desperate, and you’re bound to feel gross or at least weird afterward. I say this knowing full well that you’ve probably done it or are going to do it, so I guess the actual ground rule should be edited: Don’t sext if you’re a minor.

Just this past year, in Lacey, Washington, an eighth-grader named Margarite sent a full-frontal nude picture to her boyfriend via text. Now, it’s bad enough to think about 12-year-olds being this sexually active, but there was a measure of privacy and intimacy to the matter. It was mostly harmless flirting between two individuals. That is, until Margarite’s boyfriend forwarded the photo to a girl he thought was one of Margarite’s friends.

He was wrong. Apparently, the two had had a falling out earlier in the year, and when the dimwitted boyfriend released such a sensitive image, Margarite’s “friend” was incapable of doing anything but sending it to every single person she had ever met, ever. It wasn’t long before the picture had spread to other middle schools, even high schools, and Margarite’s social life was effectively ruined. But it didn’t end there.

From the teenage perspective, sexting is harmless. And depending on how you define it, it really is. Flirty messages? Sure. Explicit descriptions of sexual endeavors yet to come? A little more risqué, but probably fine. And even sending dirty pictures is perfectly protected under everyone’s favorite amendment. That is, if the pictures are sent and received by two consenting adults. Margarite, however, is still a long way from the age of consent, and the same goes for her boyfriend; in the eyes of the law, that makes her naked picture a piece of child pornography.

And that’s exactly what charges were leveled against the girl who had first distributed the photo (also adding a snide little text message beneath it, beginning with “Ho Alert!”) and two of her friends who helped. The children had knowingly ruined another’s reputation, safety and labeled her for life. There was no way to eliminate the photo from spreading, for even though many cell phones at the students’ middle school were confiscated, the image had already spread to the other schools and even the Internet. So these three kids, not even in high school, were facing charges that would label them as registered sex offenders and send them to juvenile hall for up to three years.

Which is where the debate comes into play. How should these children have been charged? “Dissemination of Child Pornography” is the strictest charge, a label that will stick to them for life. However, the image was not sent out with pornographic intent, and if pornography is the intended charge, then Margarite should be charged for taking the picture in the first place. This is where prosecutors run into trouble. Whatever the law may be, in Margarite’s case, the girl is clearly a victim, and the damage to her reputation and the stigma attached to her are more than punishment enough. Yet she is the sole creator of the pornographic image of a 13-year-old child. If pornography charges were to be leveled, and if the word of the law really is immutable, she would have to be punished as well.

In the end, the prosecutor who had brought the charges of child pornography agreed to make a deal with the three students who distributed the picture, and let them off on a charge of “telephone harassment.” That sounds a little too lenient, but the actual punishment is almost perfect. The students spent one humiliating night in a juvenile detention center. After that, they were assigned a series of community service sessions, and were required to design PowerPoint presentations, distribute pamphlets and give lectures on the subject, including their personal experience.

The entire situation is extremely tricky. Students believe that they are perfectly within their First Amendment rights when they “sext,” and due to the increasingly relaxed views towards sexuality, it becomes a very commonplace thing. The lax attitude cannot effectively be changed; it is a widespread cultural phenomenon. The only way to deal with the situation is to adapt the law to better fit it, perhaps proposing a new type of “cyberbullying,” aimed directly at malicious distribution of illicit images or texts. It is a form of slander, after all.

Ryan Cady is a first-year undeclared major. He can be reached at rcady@uci.edu.