Should 'sexting' be decriminalized?

Andrea Sarvady, a left-leaning columnist, writes the commentary this week, and Shaunti Feldhahn, a right-leaning columnist, responds.

Andrea Sarvady
Good news! Our courts are going after child pornographers with a vengeance, using technology like cell phones and social networking sites to locate and trap these heinous criminals and throw the book at them. The only glitch in this admirable fight for justice? The “scum” appear to be our own kids.
Youthful hormones and high-tech communication have dovetailed as of late, and “sexting” is the result – racy pictures that teens send each other via cell phone. Think this dangerous and vile behavior is part of an edgy subculture? A recent survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy claims that 20 percent of our teens are involved in sexting activities.
“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity,” Einstein once said, making me wonder if he saw this one coming.
I’m shocked by how widespread this activity has become and grateful to live in a community filled with adults who are “on it” in a big way, from academic and home life consequences to strict monitoring of teen behavior. Still, I’m more shocked by the way the law has swooped in to label young, impulsive teenagers as child pornographers.
Really? That’s how we fix this? A boy in Texas is arrested on child pornography charges for simply having a racy photo on his phone. A 14-year-old New Jersey girl posts explicit pictures of herself on MySpace and could be forced to register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law.
Even Maureen Kanka, Megan’s mother, is appalled. “This shouldn’t fall under Megan’s Law in any way, shape or form,” the mother of raped and murdered Megan Kanka declared, understanding that the MySpace exhibitionist needs help, not an avalanche of legal restrictions that will ruin her life forever.
Legislators in Vermont are trying to stop the madness, creating a bill that would remove the most serious legal consequences for sexting kids, such as a lifetime on the state’s Internet sex offender registry. Unfortunately, Vermont’s governor is disinclined to support such a bill, feeling that decisions about these charges should be left up to prosecutors.
Either Gov. Jim Douglas hasn’t been reading the same stories I have, or he thinks the best way to deal with tech-crazed, impulsive teens is to brand them child pornographers and sex offenders. Makes me kind of wonder if it’s our legal system that has exceeded our humanity …
Shaunti Feldhahn
Making young teens register as sex offenders is foolish, but decriminalization is not the solution – especially for those who pass along sexual images without consent. Let’s not ignore the most relevant question: Is this new and exploding behavioral trend good, bad or neutral for those involved and for the public at large?
Many must believe it is “neutral” or even trivial, if they prefer no systematic consequences. But it is flat-out wrong and dangerous, often with life-impacting consequences for those involved. Especially for the female subjects who are left with their reputations in tatters and futures in doubt, while the teen male traffickers get off scot-free. As Vicki Courtney, author of “Five Conversations You Must Have With Your Daughter,” wrote in an e-mail to me:
“Girls are often convinced to do this for the guys to get their attention. Then in a breakup situation, the guys often use it against them later. If you legalize sexting, the guys come out as the clear winners. The girls pay.”
One of the main reasons teens do this is that they don’t think it’s a big deal. And how will they ever recognize that it is without systemic consequences? Most of these same kids would never steal a DVD from a store. They may be tempted to, but they know it is wrong and that they’ll be caught and punished. Being 15 years old and stupid is no excuse.
Passing along someone else’s sexual image is far worse than stealing, yet Andrea wants to make being “young” and ” impulsive” a legal free pass.
By contrast, Kari Glemaker, national director for iCare, an initiative of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, pointed out in a recent interview:
“If you shoplift as a minor, there is still a consequence, just not as big as for an adult. Similarly, my county is looking to define sexting as a misdemeanor, without jail time if there is no other criminal background, possibly with a fine or community service, as well as awareness classes. To say there should be no legal consequence until age 18 is ludicrous.”
Andrea and those other parents agree that sexting is a big deal, but that we shouldn’t treat it as such. I say if we don’t treat it as such, then teenagers will never realize it is a big deal.

Andrea Sarvady (ASarvad@gmail.com) is a writer and educator specializing in counseling, and a married mother of three. Shaunti Feldhahn (scfeldhahn@yahoo.com) is a conservative Christian author and speaker, and married mother of two children. Write to them at Universal Press, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo.

Joe Rutherford