West Virginia, bastion of morality and education apparently, passed a nonsensical law making it illegal for teens to engage in sexting. The law bars juveniles from making, having, or distributing photos and videos portraying a minor in a sexual manner. The law also requires the state supreme court to develop an educational program that focuses on the consequences of sexting, including the harm it can do to relationships, school success, and future job opportunities.
SCREECH. Uh, what??
I don’t understand how the lawmakers in West Virginia are missing the critical point here. Sure, sexually explicit photos and videos can lead to negative consequences for people in a number of ways, including in their relationships, school success, and future job opportunities, but that’s not usually because of the initial act of sending the image to someone you trust; it’s from the person to whom you’re sending it sharing it with a bunch of other people or posting it on social media, without your consent.
Here’s a novel idea. How about passing a law that makes it illegal to forward sexually explicit images/videos of another person without their permission? Isn’t that the most damaging result of sexting with someone? That an explicit image you send in confidence is passed around to other people without your knowledge or consent?
West Virginia is targeting the wrong behavior. The proper way to approach the issue of teens engaging in sex perhaps a little too early or not safely/intelligently/respectfully is through education – explaining to them the realities of sex. That it’s ok to explore your sexuality in a safe way, and that it’s equally important to respect your partner, both before, during, and after any sexual activities and relationships. That includes: listening if he/she says no; that it’s wrong to take advantage of a person if they are drunk or otherwise can’t consent; maintaining your partner’s confidence if you engage in the exchange of sexual images or texts; and just generally conducting yourself in a respectful, non-fuckhead way.
I also don’t see the need for states to get puritanical and try to punish teens for sexual behavior. It’s going to happen; it’s natural to begin exploring your sexual feelings, and making sexting illegal isn’t going to do anything but add an element of shame and fear to feelings that will arise regardless.
And of course, that shame and fear is going to be internalized more by girls because it mirrors the other misogynist messages they see every day. It’s truly disingenuous to imply or believe that this law won’t disproportionately affect young girls, since they face a majority of the sexual scrutiny we throw at teens (See: Steubenville; also, everything ever). Young boys found to be engaging in sexual activities are thrown the old “Boys will be boys” wink-wink-nudge-nudge, while girls are told not to be sluts, lest exploring their sexuality render them impure and untouchable.
Girls face an undeniable pressure to sexualize themselves at a young age, while at the same time being lambasted for daring to explore their sexual feelings in the same way boys of the same age do. It’s an infuriating double standard that will only be magnified by this law. We already can’t trust educators or police to approach sexually based offenses (DUN DUN) in an appropriate and fair way, yet we should trust them to enforce this law fairly? Are we supposed to pretend that a boy caught having or sharing a sexually explicit photo of a girl he’s seeing is going to get in more trouble than the girl who took the picture of herself? History tells us that quite the opposite would be true.