How Do You Solve A Problem Like An Underage Sexter?

May 28, 2015 6:00 a.m.

If you need convincing that this entire country could use a remedial course on the difference between “consent” and “non-consent,” look no further than this sexting story coming out of New Jersey, where 20 middle and high school aged boys have been accused of participating in an electronic “trading card” ring involving nude photos of female students. Reading the coverage of it, it becomes immediately clear how these boys got their overblown sense of entitlement: Their parents and community have rushed forward to support the boys for their invasion of privacy —and have demanded, instead, that the girls be criminalized for being such alluring little temptresses.

One mother, eager to shift the blame, told the local news station, “The girls are just as responsible as the boys,” and that “The girls know that the boys trade them and it’s kind of a game that the girls want to be involved in.” She did not offer evidence of this supposed consent. Instead, she seems to be hiding behind the old boys-will-be-boys canard and implying that being sexual with one person means losing your right to decline sexual contact with others.

This mother is not alone in her attitude. The belief that being a sexual female should be just as criminal, if not more criminal, than invading someone’s privacy is apparently widespread in the community. The comments at 6ABC were full of people recommending criminal penalties for girls who dare display urges programmed into all of our genes that allow our species to continue. “Maybe the juveniles sentenced to the Training School will keep their training bras on,” recommended one. “AND hopefully someone addresses the trashy daughters and failure parents whose kids feel comfy enough to do such things, punish them as well,” suggested another.

“YEA, ruin boys lives (Not girls tho, girls are special) cause they do what ALL boys young men do,” said another. “The girls passed the pictures around, can’t expect them NOT to be shown and shared.” While there was pushback, the overwhelming sentiment was that it’s not wrong to violate someone’s privacy and humiliate her without her consent, but expressing sexual urges while female is a grievous crime.

This, of course, is what feminists refer to as “rape culture,” where male entitlement to women’s bodies is normalized while women’s ownership over their own bodies is shamed. Changing cultural attitudes about this sort of thing isn’t easy, but with the explosion in sexting and the demands that there be some kind of legal response to it, we actually have a perfect opportunity here to help get out the idea that it’s not sex that’s the problem, but lack of consent.

Focusing on the boys who passed these pictures around and not the girls is a good first step in signaling that the issue here is consent and not sexuality. But problems arise from the overly punitive approach of our justice system. Jezebel reports that the boys are facing maximum sentences of two years in training school for juveniles and up to five years in prison for the legal adult charged. That’s out of control, especially when you consider how these boys clearly haven’t had an opportunity to learn about respect and consent in an atmosphere where everyone is still playing that boys-will-be-boys card.

It’s not just about fairness, either. Lighter, more appropriate penalties might help lower people’s defenses and open them up to a conversation about sexting that focuses on consent instead of demonizing female sexuality. Parents might not be desperately casting around for reasons to blame the girls if their sons were facing six weekends of picking up garbage on the side of the road rather than two years in juvie.

Our justice system is overly punitive across the board, of course, but it’s particularly troubling to see this approach when we’re dealing with juvenile offenders, especially when they’re doing low-level stuff. As Irin Carmon reported for Salon in 2013, unlike adult sex offenders who often have ingrained and hard-to-fix personality issues, juvenile sex offenders are surprisingly easy to rehabilitate. More than 95 percent of juvenile sex offenders who get caught don’t reoffend. It’s not exactly a boys-will-be-boys problem, but it is true that a lot of young men who do this are simply experimenting with the social messages they get that glamorize non-consent and treat sexual aggression and misogyny as “manly”—and most will reject those messages in adulthood, especially if they receive early interventions.

The consequences don’t need to be severe to be a deterrent. Mild punishments, combined with consent education, can accomplish the goal of preventing the crime without provoking fears of “ruining” the lives of boys who cross the line.

There are a lot of problems in our society that are gnarly and difficult to untangle, but sexting, thankfully, isn’t one of them. It can be addressed with a simple, two-pronged approach: 1) Consent education, where kids are taught never to share a sexual or nude picture without explicit consent from the subject, with an emphasis on how each individual showing of the picture requires specific consent. (In other words, you have to ask every time you want to show a new buddy, and if you don’t feel right in asking, then you already know the answer is no.) 2) Proportionate, rehabilitation-oriented punishment for young people caught sharing photos non-consensually. A brief bout of community service, an apology letter to the victim, and consent-focused sex education ought to do it.

There’s no need to panic or let this spiral out of control. Kids are going to share naughty pictures with each other as long as they have the phones to take them with. That won’t stop. But we can use this as an opportunity to teach them how to be sexual while still being respectful to each other.

Lead photo: Jhaymesisviphotography/Flickr Creative Commons

Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.

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