The first time I heard about sexting was in high school. A sophomore girl had skipped class to hook up with a senior guy in the back of his car, and the guy told his friends where and when the hookup was going down so they could document the event. By the end of the day, even the girl's sister had seen the picture.
I felt awful for the girl. People whispered about how "slutty" she was, while the senior guy got high-fives from strangers in the hallway. Back then, people chalked an incident like this up to typical teenage antics. Today, this same act could brand you as a sex offender for the rest of your life.
Sexting seems to be gaining popularity among teens and young adults. According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl, 20 percent of teens have sexted. Even Disney sweetheart Vanessa Hudgens found herself in the midst of a sexting scandal in 2007 after a few private pictures were leaked on the web.
As the issue becomes increasingly problematic, the question of how to punish those responsible grows more and more complicated. Technically, what the senior at my high school did could have landed him in jail for creating, possessing and distributing child pornography because the girl in question was only 15.
And there's no arguing that sexting can have serious consequences for the subjects in the photo -- last year, an Ohio teenager committed suicide after her ex-boyfriend forwarded nude photos of her to classmates. And in December, a 13-year-old girl hanged herself after a topless picture of her circulated her high school.
Lawmakers are struggling to deal with the issue, but their solutions aren't always on target. For example, Wyoming County district attorney George Skumanick Jr. threatened to charge two 12-year-old girls with felony child pornography after photos of the girls in bras -- and one topless photo -- were discovered circulating on students' cell phones.
The prosecutor for the case explained that the boys who circulated the photos did not face charges because "high school boys did as high school boys will do, and traded the photos among themselves." A lot of high school boys also sell coke, but I don't think anyone is going to chalk that up to "boys being boys." Thankfully, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania stepped in on the girls' behalf and prevented Skumanick from pursuing charges.
However, Pennsylvania is taking steps to lessen the punishment for teens involved in sexting cases. On March 17, the state House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would make it a misdemeanor rather than a felony for someone between 13 and 17 to send an explicit photo to another 13- to 17-year-old.
The bill would eliminate the possibility of jail time for teens involved in sexting scandals and make it easier to expunge the crime from their records, so they're not permanently labeled as sex offenders.
As serious as sexting can be, this is a step in the right direction. I like to think I was a pretty responsible high schooler, but I'll be honest. I very rarely considered the long-term effects of my actions back then, and I'm sure sexting teens face the same problem.
I'm not defending sexting, and the fact that young girls are committing suicide as a result of it is nothing short of tragic.
That being said, I don't believe a 12-year-old can fully grasp that taking a picture of her friend in a towel amounts to child pornography.
It's obvious sexting is only gaining popularity among teens, and it's encouraging to see lawmakers like Rep. Seth Grove -- who is sponsoring the bill in Pennsylvania -- taking rational steps in dealing with the problem.