OMG! Douglas County teens face horrors of sexting

I am back from the front lines of the kiddie porn wars with some shocking news: The prosperous, sprawling suburbs of Douglas County conceal a steamy underbelly of underage sexual exhibitionism. Youth are being exploited right and left. Usually by each other.

Sexting -- the insidious, technologically inevitable, highly adolescent, so-trendy-even-Dateline-is-upset practice of sending nude or semi-nude photos by cell phone -- turns out to be as much of a problem in the upscale cul-de-sacs of Castle Pines as in the big city. Maybe more so, since there are probably more cell phones per capita, and hormones run amok, in the wilds of Exurbia. Who knew? And what the hell should be done about it?

The sexting dilemma was one of several on the table over the weekend at the second annual Douglas County Youth Congress, an ambitious gathering that encourages locals in the 13-19 age group to tackle complicated public-policy matters -- even if most of them can't vote. Aided by adult facilitators, the teens brainstorm proposed solutions and later present them to state legislators or local officials. It's a modest process that could eventually lead to big changes, a point emphasized in the inspirational keynote address by Dawn Engle, co-founder of PeaceJam and a 2007 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Through some convergence of dark forces I still don't understand, I was designated the "Subject Matter Expert" for the sexting issue. True, I have written a fair amount about teenagers doing bad things, but I can barely text, let alone sext. Studies suggest one in five adolescents have engaged in sexting at some point, either sending or receiving, but other research contends that those numbers are wildly exaggerated.

Imagine, then, my old-fogey astonishment at discovering that somewhere between a third and a half of the delegates had received a sketchy photo at some point, or knew someone who'd stupidly sent their true-love-of-the-moment an intimate portrait, only to see it become the talk of the school. Some regarded the skin pix swaps as no big deal, "as long as it's between friends;" others were disgusted by the poor judgment exhibited by their peers' not-quite-fully-developed brains.

But almost all of them were deeply outraged by the very adult consequences they could be facing for having such a photo on their phones. Sexters can be charged with exploitation of minors (even if they are the minors in question), trafficking in child porn and worse. They can end up on sex offender registries and have their college and career plans squashed. Considerable discussion ensued about how to make legal distinctions between youthful stupidity and the kind of predatory, raincoat-guy-seeking-underage-sex behavior that the laws were written for.

The most jaw-dropping moment, though, came when one member of the group confessed that he had, at his parents' urging, blocked all texting on his phone, thereby immunizing himself from unwanted pictures that could land him in the pokey. The others were speechless.

"You don't get any text messages?" one girl gasped.


"Nothing?" she persisted.


"How do you survive?"

By the end of the session, the sexting issue hadn't been solved, but it had at least been engaged. As the delegates began hammering out more specific proposals (sexting education in sixth grade! no sex offender status for first offense! diversion programs instead of jail!), I marveled at the energy involved. The Youth Congress may not save the world, but it's probably a more useful way to spend a Saturday morning than watching Gossip Girl, playing Guitar Hero -- or texting.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast