The Overreaction to 'Sexting'

In my last column for The Daily Beast I wrote about “sexting,” a term I surround with quotation marks because it isn’t sex and it hardly requires text. It’s a topic that’s been covered well by Reason Magazine, and every so often Radley Balko alerts readers of his blog, The Agitator, to new instances of adults over-reacting to the phenomenon.

My column made several arguments (paraphrased below, not quoted):

— In most cases, teens who conceal their sexting from authority figures suffer negligible adverse consequences; they’re hardly the first generation to play “I’ll show you mine.” But tragic stories that begin with “sexting” are all too frequent when principals, police officers, or district attorneys get involved. Specifically, authority figures in at least six states charge teens who send naked pictures of themselves with distributing child pornography!

— These prosecutions make the sex-offender registry less useful for all of us by wasting resources on harmless kids and diminishing what it means to be listed.

— It’s wise to discourage kids from “sexting,” and to punish them if they’re caught breaking that rule, as I’d do if I were a parent. But “sexting” isn’t a sign of a hyper-sexualized generation, or a shocking harbinger of promiscuity, or evidence that a kid needs counseling, or that he or she is bereft of modesty.

Since I regard this as an important subject, I’d like to respond to some criticism of my piece.

Calvin Freiburger writes, “if emailing naked pictures of yourself to others doesn’t indicate promiscuity or a lack of modesty, what does?”

I’d say that promiscuity is indicated by actual sexual contact. Is a 13-year old virgin who hasn’t even experienced his first kiss “promiscuous” if he sends an explicit text of himself to his girlfriend or an object of his puppy love? I think most people would say that he isn’t promiscuous. As for modesty, it depends on the circumstances, doesn’t it? I’ve read about teenage girls who sent topless photos of themselves to boyfriends they trusted. When the photographs spread, the girls were horrified by the prospect of classmates seeing them. Isn’t it clear that these girls aren’t “bereft of modesty”? I think so, and it seems to me that they’re the rule more than the exception.

In the comments section at The Daily Beast, several readers make some variation of the argument, “Oh yeah, well wait until you have kids, and you’re teenager takes topless photos of herself.” I’m confused by this counterargument. I can guarantee you that in parenthood I won’t want my daughter convicted of distributing child pornography and put on a sex offender list. And I am on record saying that I’ll urge my kids against this behavior, and punish them if they break that rule. So what exactly am I supposed to change my mind about?

On Twitter, Ben Domenech writes, “I see Conor Friedersdorf is officially through trying to be taken seriously.” It isn’t clear what particular part of my piece he regards as unserious. I’m genuinely curious, and I’ll certainly air any coherent arguments he has against my words.


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6 Responses to “The Overreaction to 'Sexting'”

  1. Tweets that mention The Overreaction to “Sexting” - Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog - True/Slant -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Conor Friedersdorf, Tweets Tube. Tweets Tube said: The Overreaction to "Sexting" […]

  2. Philip Leitner Says:

    I would agree with those that consider sexting to be promiscuous behavior, however, there should be different consequences for this behavior. Putting kids on the sex offender registry is only a scare tactic. I agree with Conor-it’s only going to clog up the system and take away from the true offenders. Perhaps the punishments should come from the parent(s)-although this probably wouldn’t be effective since many American parents would rather be friends with their kids than actually parent them.

  3. Matthew J Says:

    This is exactly what I don’t understand about *some* modern self-described conservatives. It’s very clear that this is something the government cannot handle or control (much like drug abuse). There is absolutely nothing a government agency could do to prevent a group of 14-18 year olds from privately sending graphic pictures to each other. This is a societal problem, not a governmental one. Why can’t school administrators and parents do the proper thing and have a conversation with sexters about personal responsibilty and public decency? Why the hell does anyone want the legal system involved in this? Our society does not punish streakers at college campuses and Phish concerts in this manner and we should be extending alot more leeway to young people (growing up in an increasingly sexual imagery saturated environment) who make a few mistakes in high school.

    Sorry for the mini rant but I am constantly baffled why many mainstream conservative speakers seem to think that the government should stay out of the areas where history has shown that it can do some good (health care and health insurance) and get into areas that have been historically disastrous (drug prohibition, public morality). Reiterating one more time – no government in the history of mankind has ever been able to enforce morality. That’s the job of parents, society, and the local community. If you don’t feel comfortable about sexting then start talking to your family, friends, and PTA members about it and what the proper response should be. Don’t wait until the legal system becomes involved.

  4. jcalton Says:

    Would Calvin Freiburger prefer that a 14 year old girl take off her top IN PERSON to explore her burgeoning sexuality and hormones? If I were a sane parent I’d be grateful that the only sex my kid* were having was virtual.

    10 years ago the problem was “hook-ups” where your teen was expected to engage in oral sex on a first date to keep up with her peers. Obviously, that still happens, but if we get lucky, maybe sexting will replace it.

    Ah well, obviously I’m officially through trying to be taken seriously.

    * I have a feeling that this is more of a teenage-girl(‘s parents) issue than teenage-boy. Double standards being what they are today…same as yesterday.

  5. dtafs Says:

    Why do teenagers need cell phones….

    Maybe the problem is more about enabling the behavior than the behavior itself?

    I dunno, in the 80’s/90’s, as kids, we seemed to manage ok without having cell phones, texting, sexting, etc.

  6. How Not to Raise Your Kids « Calvin Freiburger Online Says:

    […] NewsReal blasting Conor Friedersdorf for his contention that teen sexting is no big deal.  In his vapid response to his critics, somebody left a comment that perfectly illustrates just how demented the liberal […]

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