Dear Dr. Wes and Ben: I went back at the suggestion of another parent and read your columns in January on sexting naked pictures. My son recently got in trouble for this and has to do classes. The problem is that the classes are designed around the idea that he was basically a sex offender, and the girls were victims. Why aren’t the girls in the same classes? I agree with you that this is a really bad thing, but it seems like all the kids, boys and girls, are doing it. Is this a bias in our society?
Ben: Sexting is messy business. Technically, there is no official name for the crime because the technology has brought about the offense. Sexting crimes currently fall under the categories disorderly conduct, child pornography laws and “open lewdness.” Judging by my research on this subject, it’s hard to say if there is a gender bias on this issue because I’ve seen a number of cases involving female minors. The bigger question, it seems, is if this truly warrants the consequences it currently entails.
Should sexting minors be put on lists alongside child pornography producers and sex offenders? One unfortunate text, sent or received, can stamp a teenager with a felony for life. A handful of state legislatures are already reconsidering sexting consequences. Maybe gender bias is playing a hand in this crime, but this is an issue that needs a major examination in all areas.
Wes: Ben is right on the money. I would have to see the class curriculum to understand what you’re talking about, but as one who wrote a book about treating abusive families, I can say that the terms “victim” and “offender” should never be taken or used lightly. They are important words that we must not dilute by over- extension.
In my experience the reality of sexting is USUALLY just as Ben says, an innocent youthful pursuit that is a really terrible idea with dire consequences. Families do need to protect their kids from participating in it, but that is about educating them to not volunteer, rather than portraying it as if someone is lurking out there, trying to lure them into something. That’s just now how this works in the vast majority of cases.
That said, your child being compelled to take classes is a reasonable alternative to adjudication and one I’d endorse, though I’d also be leery of a curriculum that frames things the way you describe. As Ben notes, many girls get into trouble for this, too, and I’ve rarely run into a case where anyone felt coerced. Does it happen?
Of course. But we long ago gave up the idea that all teen sexual expression is rape, and there are specific rules now for what does and doesn’t constitute a sex offense.
I assumed these had evolved for sexting, but Ben may be right on that, too — the technology has evolved faster than we can evolve ways of thinking about it. Talk to the teacher of this class and discuss with him or her exactly how this issue is being conceptualized. If you aren’t satisfied, you may be able to get your attorney to request different classes in a nearby jurisdiction. The goal of any such arrangement should be to educate, and as a parent you have a vested interest in that process.