Juvenile Law Center Opposes Criminalizing Consensual Sexting

Juvenile Law Center,

In light of recent media attention on "sexting," many state legislatures are introducing Bills to criminalize various teen conduct. Touted as a deterrent to teens posting or sharing naked images of themselves, this "scared straight" approach subjects youth to harsh penalties for engaging in even consensual sharing of images between two people where there is no intent to harm. The Louisiana legislature passed a law that imposes a fine between $100-250 and imprisonment for up to ten days for any minor who sends an "indecent" photo of himself or herself electronically. Pennsylvania Representative Seth Grove (R-York) recently introduced a similar bill (H.B. 815) that would criminalize the transmission, dissemination or possession of a sexually explicit photograph as a second degree misdemeanor.

Louisiana's law and Pennsylvania H.B. 815 fail to consider that sexting is merely the convergence of new technology and normal adolescent sexual development. Teenagers often make impetuous decisions based on immediate desires. And research has shown that the threat of criminal consequences does nothing to deter teenagers from engaging in risky decisions. It is true that sometimes photos intended to remain private can get into the wrong hands. But arresting teens for making poor decisions is not the purpose of our justice system. The most effective and appropriate approach is to educate teens about internet safety and the potential social and emotional consequences of having their private photos shared more widely. In fact, this kind of punitive approach will likely prevent youth who have been coerced or victimized from reporting the harassment out of fear of prosecution themselves.

Other states have introduced more thoughtful and reasoned approaches to teen sexting. New Jersey introduced A.B. 1561 to create an educational program for teens who engage in sexting. Similarly, Oregon S.B. 677 creates defenses for sexting when the teens are within three years of each other in age. And, in Pennsylvania, Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Willow Grove) introduced S.B. 850, criminalizing sexting only when done with the intent to harm, coerce, intimidate or harass another person. Rather than criminalizing consensual conduct between teens, S.B. 850 aims to prosecute only individuals who disseminate photos without consent or send photos with the intent to bully or harm another person. Juvenile Law Center strongly supports S.B. 850 and other measures that:

  • are consistent with adolescent developmental research,
  • account for the differences between youth and adults, and
  • do not criminalize consensual conduct.

For an update on two very different legislative approaches to criminalizing teen sexting in Pennsylvania, click here.


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