You’ve probably seen a lot of media coverage lately around the phenomenon of teenagers sending nude or otherwise sexual pictures of themselves to each other, and the fact that a lot of parents, and more notably law enforcement officials, are really freaking out about it.
It wasn’t so long ago that I wrote about an outrageous case where a 15-year-old was arrested on child pornography charges for taking nude photographs of herself. But these types of stories have since really taken off; and they’re even calling it “sexting” now, because what would a story about teenagers and sex be without more ways to make it inappropriately tantalizing?
Of course, the media seems to be taking notice not to talk about how girls are being exploited by law enforcement, and often the (usually) boys who they sent the photos to, but about how girls are Teh Slutty for taking pictures of themselves, and how poor boys are being punished for getting caught up in Teh Slutty themselves. Like here at CNN, and in Thomas’ response to the article at the Yes Means Yes blog:
This article is not perfect, but it makes two really good points: First, that this is wildly and willfully excessive.
Should Phillip be punished? Yes. Should the six teens in Pennsylvania face consequences? Yes. But let’s kick them off cheerleading squads and sports teams. Make them do community service and take classes on sex crimes. Educate other teens on the dangers of sexting. Pay a price, yes, but these young people shouldn’t pay for this for the rest of their lives.
Second, that this ought to be a wake-up call that teen sexuality will develop, and that parents have a responsibility to shape it, which they cannot do by ignoring it
Now, what Thomas does here, again, is not new. In the original article I wrote about, this issue also came up — the case of a girl taking photos of herself was compared with a case of a boy spreading photos of an ex-girlfriend without her consent. And, in fact, he’s only agreeing with someone else presenting the problem. So I could be accused of picking on Thomas here, but this upsets me precisely because I like Thomas, and because he wrote a really intelligent, much longer post on this topic recently.
This most recent post, on the other hand, totally misses the mark. As Elizabeth says about a different but similar article: “it treats teens sending revealing pictures of themselves and teens sending revealing pictures of others without permission as if they were equivalent acts.” And they’re fucking not.
In the CNN article, Phillip Alpert, an 18-year-old who shared pictures of his ex-girlfriend as revenge after a break-up and was convicted on child porn charges, is compared to three girls who sent pictures of their own volition to three boys, all of whom are charged with child pornography.
Do we not see the problem here?
Let me spell it out: the problem is that the pictures are being treated as the problem. And they’re not. Whatever personal qualms you may have, there is nothing morally wrong, nor should there be anything illegal, about sending sexual pictures of yourself to another person so long as you’re doing so willingly, even if you’re underage. There is, however, something gravely wrong with distributing sexual pictures of another person without their permission.
These are two radically different cases. Six teenagers engaged in consensual sexual behavior that authorities disapproved of. And one boy engaged in non-consensual sexual behavior. But they’re being treated like the same damn thing.
No one, in fact, seems to care about the fact that there is a girl in Alpert’s case who had her trust an autonomy violated. They just care a) that the dirty pictures exist in the first place and b) a boy’s life is ruined as a result of his own goddamn behavior.
We can debate whether or not Alpert’s actual punishment is appropriate. Should he have been convicted of a felony for his actions? Should he be forced to register as a sex offender? Though again, I don’t think that the pictures themselves were the problem and the charges are therefore probably off, I’m not particularly interested in that at the moment.
I’m interested in the fact that CNN’s Mike Galanos seems to think that he only deserves to be kicked off of the school’s sports team (even though he now a legal adult). And that the six teens who engaged in consensual behavior deserve exactly the same. I’m interested in the fact that these two acts are being equated, and the fact that they are equated is probably precisely why there are so few laws out there to combat what Alpert actually did wrong.
And I’m interested in the fact that Thomas agrees that this is a wake-up call to parents regarding “teen’s sexuality.” No, it should be a wake-up call to parents that their sons (and daughters — but primarily sons) may also engage in non-consensual sexual behavior and that they need to do something to stop it. Not to stop their daughters from taking pictures of themselves because those boys just can’t help themselves, but to stop their sons from being abusive, misogynistic pieces of shit. To equate what Alpert did with “teen sexuality” is not only belittling to teens who are expressing their sexuality in consensual and healthy ways, but offensive to all teenage boys, the majority of whom are not behaving like Alpert.
If I had a teenage son and a teenage daughter, I know which one I’d be most concerned about talking to. And the fact that most of this country, at least if media representation is any indication, has the opposite answer tells us a whole lot about the kind of apologist rape culture we live in.