The uncomfortable reality in today’s technologically advanced world is that teenagers engage in sexting. Sexting is when one party sends sexually suggestive photographs of themselves or others via cell phone to another party, most commonly his or her romantic interest. Passing sexually explicit images to one another is a long-standing activity that has only been made easier with cell phone technology. Teenagers especially have taken full advantage of this phenomenon.
What parents do not realize is that teenagers face a large number of risks by engaging in this type of behavior. Teenagers who sext may face social humiliation and ostracism if their personal images are shared with others without their consent. More importantly, teenagers who are caught with sexually suggestive images of their underage girlfriends or boyfriends on their phones may be prosecuted as sex offenders. This might sound drastic and unnecessary, but, as explained below, underage sexting falls within the parameters of the Sexual Exploitation of Minors criminal statute in Washington, previously known as the Child Pornography statute.
In Washington, RCW 9.68A makes it illegal to, among other things, disseminate, possess, and view pictures of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. More specifically, the language of the statute reads, “A person commits the crime of dealing in depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct in the second degree when he or she: … Knowingly develops, duplicates, publishes, prints, disseminates, exchanges … any visual or printed matter that depicts a minor engaged in an act of sexually explicit conduct.” When a minor takes a sexually explicit photo of his or herself and sends it to his or her significant other, the minor has disseminated the photograph. Also, because RCW 9.68A.070 makes it a crime to possess a depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, the recipient of such a photograph can be charged with a crime as well.
RCW 9.68A.040 states that a person, regardless of age, is guilty of sexual exploitation of a minor when they “aid” a minor in engaging in sexually explicit conduct, “knowing that such conduct will be photographed.” The statute broadly defines “sexually explicit conduct,” and that definition most likely covers the types of images that are transmitted through sexting. Therefore, any teenager who takes a sexually explicit photo of his or her significant other can easily be charged under this statute.
Sexual exploitation of a minor is a class B felony, punishable by confinement in a state correctional institution for a term of ten years, or by a fine in an amount fixed by the court of twenty thousand dollars, or by both. Moreover, anyone charged with this crime must register as a sex offender. Anyone who has heard of a sex offender registry or knows anything about what it means to be a registered sex offender can tell you that this is a life-ruiner.
Prosecutors in Washington have already charged teenagers under this statute. In 2010, three teenagers in Lacey were charged under the child pornography statute after they sexted a nude photo of a middle school student. The charges were later reduced. Teenagers are being charged under similar state statutes in other parts of the country. In 2009, female high school students, all 14 to 15 years old, were charged with disseminating child pornography. The 16 and 17-year-old boys who received the sexts were charged with possession. In 2013, similar charges were filed against two students in Pennsylvania after a 13 year-old-girl sent sexually explicit photos of herself to a 14 year-old-boy.
No matter where you stand on teenagers sexting, most parents can agree that it is severe to force teenagers to undergo the process of being charged as sex offenders. However, until the legislature creates a bill that deals directly with sexting, prosecutors will work with what they have. Just as parents are encouraged to talk to their children about the consequences of drug use, parents should also inform their children about the long-term social and legal consequences of sexting. It only takes one sexually explicit photograph of a minor on a phone to turn a teenager into a sex offender.
Written by Anastasia Kidniz