It’s springtime. Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, and love is in the air. That can only mean one thing: It’s time to send pictures of your bits and pieces!
If you’ve ever used your phone to send someone special a picture of your thing(s), you’re not alone. Data shows that sexting is a highly popular pastime enjoyed by men and women alike. As you might expect, it’s most common among sexually active digital natives (i.e. teens and young adults). However, it’s not only the young’uns sending out pics of their junk. Polls show that sexting is a hobby enjoyed by all sexually active age groups—right on up to retirees. Your grandparents—or at least, some of their friends—are now sexting.
Of course, as with just about anything else in life, there are risks. Recent high-profile cases showcase how easy it is for images of a highly personal nature to become widely disseminated online. Everyone should consider the risks and rewards before hitting “send.” As with actual IRL sex, there is no way to remove all risk when sexting, but there are ways to mitigate it. To start, you should only trade images with a partner you really trust.
The first line of defense rests with the individual, but are there things that society—with the full backing of the law—should do to protect people? Maybe. But before we get carried away with attempting to protect people from inherently risky behaviors, there’s an important element we shouldn’t lose sight of: Sending n00dz can be super fun.
Indeed, there are lots of fun risky activities—skydiving, pro-football, eating blowfish—but we don’t necessarily want to live in a country in which the government uses its muscle to make these things illegal.
So how should society approach this very common activity? To help answer that question, we spoke to the author of Sexting Panic, Dr. Amy Hasinoff. She sees sexting as a part of modern relationships in the digital age, but acknowledges there is a shared responsibility among a) the sexter to take basic precautions to protect themselves and make sure a sext is wanted by b) the recipient, who should never share these private images without consent, and c) society, which should evolve to give people more rights over images that are undeniably private.
“I think it would be very useful to have a takedown notice system for personal images. So, with [the Digital Millennium Copyright Act], if you find your content online you can send a takedown notice and if the website doesn’t comply, you can sue them,” says Hasinoff.
“Of course, it’s not fool-proof. We all know there are many ways to steal copyrighted content online. But these do decrease the availability of it and it sends a message to society that ‘we care about protecting intellectual property.’ I think it’s interesting that we’re so willing to bend over backwards for people to protect people’s right to profit off their content, which I get—that’s why copyrights exist—but we don’t have similar laws when it comes to privacy.”
Nobody should be surprised that for-profit businesses have more content protections under the law than individuals—corporations can afford lobbyists; the average schmo cannot. While there isn’t currently any mass movement to implement a DMCA-like system for private images, platforms like Facebook and Google have implemented systems to report and block images disseminated online without permission, or “revenge porn.” It’s a start.
Beyond privacy protections (or lack thereof), there are elements of the law that directly deal with sexting, but in some cases involving teens, they can do more damage than good. One of the worst ways to “educate” young people on these matters is to prosecute them for taking racy pictures of themselves (an exceedingly common activity among teens).
For example, a Pennsylvania county district attorney in 2010 controversially charged eight teenagers, ages 13 to 17, with felony child pornography charges. The teens were charged with producing and disseminating images, including self-taken nudes as well as video of consensual sexual acts.
“That was the only charge that really fits what they were doing,” Prosecuting DA, Charles Chenot, said at the time. “What would have been the best thing to charge would be something that would have been a little less severe, but would still draw these teenagers’ attention to the wrongness of their acts.”
In fact, in the years since, many states have heeded Chenot’s advice and passed misdemeanor “teen sexting” laws to give prosecutors more leeway. However, even these misdemeanor laws may prove problematic, according to Dr. Hasinoff.
“About half of states have teen sexting laws which are misdemeanors. And those laws seem like a good idea, because they’re [attached to less harsh] penalties, but they still criminalize consensual sexting,” says Dr. Hasinoff.
“Prosecutors have leverage to not charge anyone, charge under felony laws, or charge them under state misdemeanor laws. If prosecutors have the misdemeanor law, the problem is that sometimes they’ll charge the victims of privacy violations to sort of send a message to all the teens that ‘you shouldn’t be doing this, it’s dangerous.’ And it is dangerous, but I don’t think you should be criminalizing it in any way.”
Millennials are the first generation to really grow up with the internet and all its foibles. As they age and transition from rule breakers to rule makers, this generation of likely sexters will demand that society—and the law—accommodate a fundamental truth: People really like sending out pics of their stuff.
The Convo is PCMag’s interview series hosted by features editor Evan Dashevsky (@haldash). Each episode is broadcast live on PCMag’s Facebook page, where viewers are invited to ask guests questions in the comments. Each episode is then made available on our YouTube page and available for free as an audio podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes or on the podcast platform of your choice.