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The Albion Fellows Bacon Center Tackles the Topic of Youth Produced Sexual Images or Teen ‘Sexting’

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The mission of Albion Fellows Bacon Center is to eliminate domestic and sexual violence in our communities through advocacy, education, support services and collaborative partnerships.  So how does this mission relate to the topic of Youth Produced Sexual Images?  Well, in order to understand that relationship we need to look at what this topic is.  This discussion could benefit you if you have had this happen to you or if you have a friend that has had this happen to them.   We are all resources for each other and for many, friends are our first choice for support.

Youth Produced Sexual Images is a very popular topic in the media right now.  The popular term for this behavior is “sexting.”  Sexting is sending, receiving, or forwarding sexual photos or sexually suggestive messages through text message or email. While the term “Sext” has been around since about 2005, the idea of exchanging or recording sexual material isn’t a new concept. Technology advances have made exchanging images much easier and more powerful than ever before. With a click of a button a picture can be distributed to many people instantaneously—and once it’s out there, there’s no going back. This is said to hopefully help you realize the seriousness of a decision to take a photograph like this of yourself, but not to leave you feeling stuck if you have already made a decision to do this behavior.  We are going to talk about what to do if you are in this situation and reasons why to avoid the behavior in the first place.

Why do you think this behavior happens?  In some cases, you may be responding to peer pressure in a form of cyber bullying or pressure from a boyfriend or girlfriend.  After a break up, then sometimes those photos get sent around out of revenge. Sometimes it’s impulsive behavior, flirting, or even blackmail. I have had many teens tell me they were bored and it was something to do, or they were just goofing off with a friend or dating partner and a picture got snapped on a cell phone. Sometimes these pictures are taken without your knowledge.  We saw a local example of that in Henderson Kentucky when several athletes chose to take a locker room picture of one of their teammates. Bottom line…taking pictures like this is always a bad idea.

In addition, teen sexting can be an element in the power and control dynamics of teen dating violence.  A 2008 National Council on Crime and Delinquency survey found that approximately one in three adolescent girls in the United States is a victim of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner. In unhealthy dating relationships, you may feel pressure to share nude pictures of yourself. In fact, one survey of teens found that about half of teens who admitted to sexting said they felt pressured into sending the photos. Teen girls seem to experience more pressure than teen boys to share explicit photos. Once pictures have been sent, an abusive dating partner can use the threat of forwarding the pictures to other people as a way to control and manipulate the photographed teen. In some instances, teens have asked the photographed person for sexual favors or money in exchange for agreeing not to disseminate compromising pictures. An abusive dating partner might also forward photos to other people to humiliate the photographed teen or as revenge for a break-up. The negative response from classmates once such a photo gets out can be devastating–classmate opinions can feel so important. At least two documented suicides have been linked to the humiliation the teens experienced from their peers as a result of sexting.

Let’s start by talking about why producing sexual images has both emotional and legal consequences to consider.  Emotionally- taking a picture like this may seem like no big deal, but if it backfires and gets into the wrong hands the consequences could be devastating. Many teens that I talk with at school presentations say the likelihood of a single picture they took and did send to someone ever causing a problem is slim. Wrong! Research and my experiences with teens paint a very different picture of human nature.

The AP/MTV survey found that of respondents who received nude images, 18 percent shared the images with others.   Another study completed by Cox Communications found that 30% of “friends of sexters” reported that the image was forwarded to recipients against the senders’ wishes.  (Information from Associated Press and MTV, The MTV-Associated Press Poll: Digital Abuse Survey (September2, 2011) at http://www.athinline.org/about#research .)

The desire to talk and gossip about things like this is so very strong.  Especially at school when there are people around you all day long.   Plus, how many times do we get into disagreements with our friends and choose to do things out of anger that we regret after calming down?   Not only is there the emotional (and reputation) damage that can come from having intimate photos of yourself go to a friend who can become an ex-friend but they can be distributed and archived online for people to search for pretty much forever.

After the picture is out there it may lead to bullying. This creates a harsh world for a teen to live. Oftentimes reaching out for help can be embarrassing.  You may fear that by telling someone what is going on you will be making it worse, or fear getting into trouble. This can lead to feeling like you’re caught in a trap with no way out.  How hard would it be to sit in school knowing that anyone in the room could have looked at this picture of you?

Also, sexting can compromise social reputations AND digital reputations! Once a photo is out, there’s no way of knowing how many people have saved it, tagged it, shared it, etc. Unfortunately, the photo could re-surface years after it was taken and posted. Plus, more and more college reps and prospective employers are using the internet to find out information about candidates. What they find online could sway their decision about whether or not you land the job or get accepted into the school of your dreams.

On a creepier note: with today’s technologies, a texted photo intended only for another teen can quickly fall into the hands of adults! Internet anonymity means that adults can pose as teens, and teens sending photos online have no way to know if they are sending their photos to a teen or an adult.

Laws vary from state to state, each jurisdiction enforces the law differently, and the applicable laws were written before sexting was “invented.” With sexting, the same minor can be both perpetrator and victim when producing and sending photos of him or herself – a very tricky situation under current laws. Sadly, laws lag behind technology… but here is the good news: In 2011, 21 U.S. states passed legislation relating to sexting. In 2012, at least 13 states so far are considering bills or resolutions aimed at “sexting”.  At the most basic level you need to keep in mind that it’s illegal: Don’t take or send nude or sexually suggestive photos of yourself or anyone else. If you do, even if they’re of you or you pass along someone else’s – you could be charged with producing or distributing child pornography. If you keep them on your phone or computer you could be charged with possession. If they go to someone in another state (and that happens really easily), it’s a federal felony.  If you are curious to know the laws in your state, then do an online search to find them.  (For Indiana you would to www.in.gov )

So, what can you do if you find yourself in this situation?  What advice can you give a friend who comes to you because they have received one of these photographs on their cell phone?  Many people want to just delete the image and make it go away, especially after learning about the consequences of having a photo like this.   That won’t solve the problem and could still land you in trouble.   Things we delete from a cell phone or computer don’t go away.  The sender of the photo still has a link to your phone showing that you received the photo.  If the sender of the photo gets in trouble, the police could come knocking on your door looking for an explanation of what you did with the photo they know you received.  Deleting thing does not make them go away.   So how can we respond to the situation in a better way?

These tips from the website www.connectsafely.org represent the most pervasively accepted advice about this situation.

  • If a sexting photo arrives on your phone, first, do not send it to anyone else (that could be considered distribution of child pornography). Second: Talk to a parent or trusted adult. Tell them the full story so they know how to support you. And don’t freak out if that adult decides to talk with the parents of others involved – that could be the best way to keep all of you from getting into serious trouble.
  • If the picture is from a friend or someone you know, then someone needs to talk to that friend so he or she knows sexting is against the law. You’re actually doing the friend a big favor because of the serious trouble that can come if the police get involved.
  • If the photos keep coming, you and a parent might have to speak with your friend’s parents, or the police.

There is a lot of excellent information on this topic on the web.  For more information visit:

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