A congressman who sends an X-rated photo of himself jeopardizes his reputation and his job. But in many states, teens caught doing the same thing can risk felony charges, jail time, and being branded sexual offenders.
That’s because a minor who transmits a sexually explicit photo of himself, according to many state laws, is manufacturing and distributing child pornography. Lawmakers across the country, however, now say the problem of teen sexting didn’t exist when they enacted harsh punishments for child porn and are considering changes that would ensure minors don’t face jail time for youthful mistakes.
“Let’s just call this what it is: stupid,” said Rhode Island state Rep. Peter Martin, a Democrat from Newport who is sponsoring a bill to downgrade teen sexting from a felony to a juvenile offense. “These are kids we’re talking about. I don’t think minors should face these severe punishments just for being stupid.”
Legislatures in Rhode Island and 20 other states have considered bills this year to adjust penalties for teen sexting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California lawmakers are considering legislation that would enable schools to expel students caught sexting. Florida lawmakers voted to punish teen sexting with a $60 fine and community service.
Lawmakers in New York, where U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner is embroiled in a sexting scandal, have introduced legislation that would allow judges to send teens who send explicit photos to counseling instead of jail if prosecutors agree they meant no harm.
Studies show that one in five teens has electronically transmitted explicit photos of themselves, and one third say they have received such photos. It’s a 21st-century update of “I’ll show you mine” with one critical difference: Lewd photos can be passed on with the push of a button and live forever on the internet.