The US House of Representatives recently passed HR1761. The bill amends a Federal statute protecting child pornography victims by closing a loophole that requires the defendant to have specific intent to produce child pornography prior to abusing a child and imposes mandatory sentences (15 years at a minimum) for distributing sexually explicit images of minors. Under the previous statute, a defendant could admit sexual conduct with a minor and also admit to taking a photo of the conduct, but successfully prevent a conviction by arguing intention. Certainly, "there is no question that we need efforts to clamp down on the distribution of media depicting child sexual abuse; there’s a lot of it out there, and many professionals have seen the direct harm that it can cause" (Prescott, 2017). So, what’s the big deal with this becoming law?
While the intent of the bill is to strengthen statutes prohibiting the production and distribution of child pornography, it criminalizes all transmissions of sexual images of minors including sexting among consenting teenagers. Critics note that the wording of the law is so vague that it could easily lead to adolescents serving very serious prison sentences for sending pictures of themselves naked to their boyfriend or girlfriend. It is worth noting that surveys of students consistently find that 20 to 50 percent of teens have exchanged sexually explicit text messages that include images.
ATSA issued a cautionary statement: “ This law creates an inflexible, one-size-fits-all system that would subject any teenager caught sending a sexually revealing photo of him- or herself, or viewing such a photo, to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison and lifetime registration as a sex offender” (ATSA, 2017).
Perhaps the reader should stop, pause, and consider our own impulsive acts as teenagers. Smartphones are ubiquitous amongst teens, as are questionable decisions. “A more effective response might be to require parents to take away the smartphone and ground their son or daughter for a month. A 15-year mandatory minimum sentence? Even adults can be prone to stupid online mistakes, whether sharing pictures with the wrong person, sending angry emails without thinking, or making an impulse purchase that they later regret. Don’t kids need guidance and education more than punishment? Going to prison at 17 and coming out at 32?” (Prescott, 2017).
Of course, there is no question that young people should be protected from abuse. This is the outcome we all work and strive for. Still, the fact remains that sexuality is complicated. Adults sexting each other may seem “deviant” to some and yet is very common. The bright line is consent: one person’s intrusion is another’s intimacy. Who gets to make the call?