Teen sexting is one of those subjects where a genuine but pretty small-scale problem has given birth to a lot of unfounded fears. That is, there are definitely instances in which sexting leads to bullying, stolen nudes, and even, in the worst cases, suicide. But there are also many hysterical parents — and pundits — who have overinflated teen sexting to the status of some sort of national emergency risking the lives and futures of millions of teens. There’s a real element of moral panic here, driven in part by parents who assume middle school is now nothing but a frenzied bazaar of nudes-swapping.
Unfortunately, as politicians and prosecutors have jockeyed to be as “tough” on this subject as possible, the moral panic has brought with it some outrageous court cases. For example, Slate’s Christina Cauterucci writes that “Last year, a 17-year-old black boy in Louisiana who’d exchanged sexual videos with his white 16-year-old girlfriend was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile and possession of child pornography. His girlfriend was charged as a juvenile under the state’s sexting law; he was charged as an adult.” This sort of thing has been going on for a long time, now — here’s a CBS article from 2010 highlighting similar overcharging of minors.
In light of that sort of insanity, it’s nice to see Charlie Baker, Massachusetts’s Republican governor, exhibiting a bit of coolheadedness. Cauterucci reports that Baker has introduced a bill which “would prevent prosecutors from charging teen sexters as child pornographers, recommending that they be sent to an educational program instead of prison or juvenile detention.” Now, Baker isn’t going soft on genuine revenge-porn peddlers here — the flip side of his bill is that it will also impose “harsher punishments on people who share nude photos with others without the subject’s consent.”
That approach — targeting the people who do the most intentional harm, rather than those who merely possess nude photos of a loved one — makes the most sense, and as Cauterucci notes it’s part of a broader trend of lawmakers around the country realizing that sexting-panic has gone a bit too far and adjusting state laws accordingly. Baker deserves some credit for not falling victim to the national epidemic of craziness about this subject.