Teen Sexting Laws: Author Sees Their Roots in Slut Shaming

More photos below.
More photos below.
Thinkstock

"One of the reasons we have such terrible teen-sexting laws is that people think any girl who would do this must be deviant or mentally ill or pathological. And that really denies the reality that teenagers are sexting. And it's not just a couple of them."

That's one of the many provocative opinions shared by Amy Hasinoff, a CU Denver communications professor and the author of Sexting Panic, a soon-to-be-published book that casts a critical gaze on the legal and social approaches to dealing with the growing number of young people who sext. And Hasinoff thinks many, if not most, of them cause more harm than good.

Why did Hasinoff decide to tackle the topic?

"There are a lot of studies that have dealt with the prevalence of sexting and who's doing it," she says. "But I haven't seen a lot of studies about the way people talk about sexting — and that's my interest. It's not really about why people sext or who's doing it or how often. It's about how sexting is constructed as a social problem and how a moral panic has been created about it. People are responding to a perceived social problem in unproductive ways that may make the problem worse."

Amy Hasinoff.
Amy Hasinoff.
University of Colorado Denver

Hasinoff breaks down the stop-teen-sexting techniques into four basic categories: criminalizing sexting, promoting abstinence, encouraging parents to use surveillance or monitoring techniques and blaming technology for facilitating it.

From a criminal perspective, "sexting can be treated as child pornography, which is a really harsh crime to be charged with and the penalties are huge," Hasinoff notes. "And it seems illogical to me that the child pornography laws don't make a distinction about whether the sexting was consensual or not. You can be sending a sext to your partner with consent and be charged with child pornography — and then, if your partner sends it to friends or so forth, that person can be charged with child pornography, too. But in the first case, the partner is presumably happy to get that image, and in the second case, the person is maliciously violating the first person's privacy."

The difference in these intentions is key, Hasinoff feels. "Laws in a lot of states essentially say that whether you sext with consent or with malicious intent, we're going to give you the same penalty. And studies have shown that about 30 percent of teenagers sext. So we're talking about something that's essentially normal for about a third of teens and turning it into child pornography."

For Hasinoff, the laws become even less defensible when they're compared to those governing underage sex. "The age of consent varies from state to state, but it's usually either sixteen or seventeen — and the states also have age spans where sex with someone younger isn't considered a crime. So teens can legally have sex with other teens if they're covered by these laws, but they can't take a photograph of each other without it being illegal. And when a second person's privacy is violated, there's nothing they can do about it, because reporting the violation opens them up to prosecution, as well as slut-shaming by peers or parents grounding them. They're implicated and blamed by something done to them.

Hasinoff sees a double standard in the ways teen boys and girls are treated when caught sexting.
Hasinoff sees a double standard in the ways teen boys and girls are treated when caught sexting.
Thinkstock

"One of the biggest problems with sexual violence is that we tend to blame the victims. And with sexting, it's even worse."

She sees abstinence as a similarly ineffective method. "Most people understand that teenagers are going to have sex," she says, "which is why there's a consensus among researchers that providing them with accurate information works better than simply telling them they can't do it. That results in higher rates of STDs and pregnancies." And parents spying on kids whose privacy may have already been violated brings more troubling implications, in her view.

Pointing the finger at electronic devices is equally counterproductive, Hasnioff argues. "We tend to focus on the mobile phone for causing sexting. But when people have sexual relationships, they're obviously going to use their phone as part of it. That's the way we communicate now. And blaming the phone overlooks the harm that sexting can do, a lot of which is tied into double standards in which women are viewed as sexual objects and men as sexual subjects. Especially in high schools and small communities, an image can be passed around among peers, and girls can be shamed and humiliated in ways that predate sexting by hundreds of years.

The cover of "Sexting Panic."
The cover of "Sexting Panic."
University of Colorado Denver

"These kinds of situations can lead to high-profile suicides that get publicized as sexting suicides. But they're really slut-shaming suicides. Sexting may have precipitated them, but it's not the cause. The causes are the crazy social norms that view sexuality unfairly."

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What's a better way to deal with teen sexting? Hasinoff suggests that "we focus on privacy in terms of privacy norms. And the privacy issue has broader implications beyond this study. The pace of technological development has moved faster than our privacy laws have developed. In the United States, we've historically leaned more toward free speech than privacy, whereas in Europe and other places, they tilt more toward personal privacy. I think with digital media, we have to rethink some of our investments in free speech and consider how we can protect that, but also protect individuals from privacy violations."

In addition, she continues, "we need better education about consent and how that applies to people in sex acts, as well digital sex acts. That's a key way we should be thinking about it, and thinking about the way it's criminalized — which is so weird."

For more information about Sexting Panic, due for release on February 28, click here.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

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