Is Sexting by any other Name Still Wrong?

It’s still all over the news, but in case you’ve been avoiding media or vacationing in Fiji for the past few weeks, here’s a summary: Congressional Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) sends randy photos of himself through social networking to young women. Denies it. Then says computer was hacked. Then ‘fesses up and loses job. Journalists are all over the story, and one wonders if his name didn’t contribute exponentially to interest in the incident.

And with this juicy news item comes a lot of commentary about how to address sexting with youth. Because, you know, even though Weiner is a full-fledged adult, the story always comes back to youth making stupid mistakes. Adults apparently don’t need to be told about the dangers of the internet, though I am coming this close to suggesting that Congress hold a mandatory orientation on social networking and its proper usage.

Among all the usual comments about the importance of talking to your teen about sex and sexting (though a tired mantra, I do support the idea that this news story is a GREAT icebreaker for parents to talk to their kids about what can potentially happen if you send a photo to someone online) are danah boyd’s reflections, which are particularly insightful, as they address full-on the complexity of the issue. Her talk is long, but it contains TONS of great information. I think the important takeaway here is that we are still immersed in laws that punish the sender of erotic images, even though the motives for sending them can vary tremendously.

I believe that investigating the motives behind the act of sexting is crucial to crafting effective laws and policies related to this behavior. I commented about the importance of differentiating between different types of sexting before, but it bears repeating. Two essential questions:

1. Is the person sending pictures of themselves or others? If self, it’s possible that no punishment is necessary (unless that person was coerced into sending the picture — then punishment may apply to the person doing the coercion). If others, the incident needs to be looked at more closely.

2. Was was the intent behind the sending? boyd provides case studies of several motivations behind sexting including to gain approval, to be romantic, to shame or hurt someone. There are countless other reasons, but considering a few of the major ones can help shape policy.

Knowing the answers to the above questions on a case-by-case basis can help us come up with solutions as to “what to do about it.” It also might cause us to reflect on the “it” — sexting — and conclude that we should expand our vocabulary to call out the different types. Most crimes don’t have names that can be used for legal and illegal acts: “murder,” ” stealing,” “espionage” — these terms are pretty much used when someone breaks a law.

So perhaps “sexting” can be the legal term, and we can come up with a term for sending sexually explicit pictures illegally. Or maybe it’s best to do it the other way around, since “sexting” has such a negative connotation already. Whatever the solution, creating labels to distinguish categories can help the public see that this behavior is more complex than many realize.

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