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.