Everyone agrees that child molestation and child pornography are despicable exploitations of innocent children, who cannot defend themselves against their adult exploiters.  But what happens when the exploited is also the exploiter?  States have begun to create laws about “sexting”, or more accurately, the transmission of self-created nude pictures of teens and preteens that would make them sex offenders.  The ACLU objects:

Youths should not be treated like criminals for sending nude photos over cell phones or the Internet, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

At a Columbus news conference, lawyers from the ACLU and Ohio State University said that no Ohioan has been convicted of a felony yet, but lives could be ruined if underage youths have to register as sex offenders for sharing nude or semi-nude photos or video.

Known as “sexting,” teenagers also have been charged with pandering obscene material and other pornography crimes for transmitting or posting photos on Internet sites like Facebook or MySpace.

The ACLU of Ohio urged officials to stop prosecuting juveniles, claiming that the damage from criminal trials far outweighs the act of sexting. They sent letters Thursday to all 88 Ohio county prosecutors and members of the Ohio General Assembly, urging them not to pursue criminal charges.

In my day, “sexting” was known by a different name: Polaroid.  It took a little more ingenuity and slightly more investment, but teenagers who had the inclination would take pictures of themselves, or their sex partners would do it for them.  They got passed around on occasion, too, although the new technology makes that a no-cost affair and a lot easier to accomplish.

The ACLU has a point here.  Taking nude pictures of underaged teens exploits them, but if they’re exploiting themselves, prosecution winds up punishing both the perp and the victim.  When boyfriends and girlfriends of the same age take the picture and then disseminate them, they may be heartless cads (we had a more blunt name for them in the Polaroid Age), but it’s difficult to put them in the same category as child pornographers for the act.

On the other hand, that seems to allow a Mack Truck-sized loophole for real exploiters of children.  They could conceivably have them take their own pictures and send them via cell phone to whomever they desire.  Possession of child pornography is a crime, and it may be difficult to differentiate on the basis of origination and transmission type.

Surely there can be some sort of middle ground here, where really stupid teenage acts can be deterred by threat of official sanction without resulting in sticking a lifetime sex-offender label on the sexters.  Perhaps the age and identity of the perpetrators can trigger misdemeanors or infractions rather than felonies, and prosecutors and judges be given latitude for discretion.  We want to protect the powerless, not destroy their lives.

Tags: Ohio