sextingYesterday I wrote about sexting, in the original, text-based sense.  Today I get into those terribly troubled waters when teenagers send sexual images – either stills or video – of themselves.

I’m hesitant to write about this topic, which is perhaps telling in and of itself.  I write about a lot of controversial issues (like when I suggested teenagers should have vibrators if they want them, oh and here too!).  But there are few topics where people are as full of vitriol as they are on the topic of pictures of teenagers that in any way imply a sexuality or sensuality.

My first position holds regardless of age: Sending a sexual digital picture to anyone opens the potential of that image being spread online.  Frankly, it is almost as likely to end up online if you just hand over a hard copy of a sexual picture .  Images are simply too easy to replicate, digitize, and spread.  Some people are fine with that potential outcome, but many more have simply not considered the implications that parents, teachers, siblings, ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, and the waiter at the local coffee joint might recognize you in you those pictures.

But that’s a pretty extreme and unkind act of your partner to spread those images – even if the two of you have had an unhappy breakup. Far more likely for teenagers is that their partner’s cell phone will be confiscated by the principle and the principle will stumble on a naked picture.

Which leads us, in short order, to the legal issues. Even if that picture was taken in the context of a loving, supportive, mutual sexual relationship in the best way possible, if the person in the picture is underage, it is considered child pornography. Here is the worst-case scenario:

A teenage girl takes a picture of herself naked and e-mails it to her partner. Her partner puts it on his or her cell phone. The cell phone is confiscated and the picture is found.

The girl could be charged with the creation and distribution of child pornography. Her partner could be charged with having child pornography.

The legal repercussions for this have the potential to be dramatic and life-long, including being labeled as a sex offender for the rest of their lives.

I am not opposed to teenagers taking pictures of themselves naked in theory. I think it can be good for us in this media-obsessed culture to see what we actually look like naked in a picture rather than from the perspective of looking down or into a mirror. But the American legal system has no tolerance or willingness to look at situations involving pictures of underage naked models on a case-by-case basis. And not many teenagers are aware of how dramatic the reactions and fall-out that could come from this innocent series of events.

We need to educate our young people on legal ramifications. We also need to push for a change in the laws. But until that change occurs, teenagers who are under 18 need to be very careful that any picture they take of themselves falls into appropriate boundaries. Particularly, that they are not naked or engaging in any sexual behavior beyond kissing.

Next week I’ll talk more about how parents can have conversations with young people about the legal and relational ramifications of sexting.