‘Sexting Panic’ Author Offers Caution, Advice After Canon City Headlines

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The students caught up in the Canon City High School sexting scandal made national news last week. But the laws that could be applied to the participants -- felony charges and perhaps even registering as sex offenders -- miss the mark, according to Amy Hasinoff. She's an assistant professor of communications at CU Denver and author of "Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent."

"Child pornography [laws were] designed to address adults exploiting vulnerable young children. It was designed to be a very harsh penalty to address a very horrible and traumatic crime," she told Colorado Matters.

"But when we're talking about teenagers sexting, what's going on is a lot more complex. You have some teenagers who are sexting consensually, meaning they are sending photos willingly to a partner who wants to receive those photos or in other cases, they're sharing photos without consent and that might be malicious and that might be negligent -- that's certainly not something they want to be doing, but the law treats both as though they're exactly the same."

On her website, Hasinoff advises teens to "practice safer sexting":

Everything digital is not meant to be public–never assume that the format of something private (an email or a digital photo, for example), means that it is ok to distribute it.

Learn, use, and promote the affirmative consent model in your sexual relationships and among your peers. Think about sexting as a sex act and always make sure you have enthusiastic consent from your partner before you create or share a sexual image that involves another person.

Consider safer-sexting strategies. For example: crop your face or other identifying marks out of suggestive photos, delete old photos often and ask your partner to do the same, and consider an app that deletes photos automatically after they’ve been viewed.

Avoid blaming the victims of nonconsensual distribution.

Be aware of and work on resisting rape culture, slut-shaming, homophobia, and the sexual double standard in your everyday life.

Speak out against gender- and sexuality-based insults when you hear them.

Why tough legal penalties aren't always a deterrent:

"I don't know that we can presume it's a deterrent because the recent studies have shown that about 30 percent of teens are sexting -- sending images of themselves -- and many of them know that there are legal implications, that there are risks, but they do it anyway.

"And in fact, if you look at the studies of young adults, the rate is even higher, it's up to 50 percent. So this is not something that we can just criminalize and expect to go away. It's not going to happen."

On a more common sense legal approach:

"I think the legal approach needs to be about protecting people's privacy and dealing with privacy violations and that applies not just to sexting but to all of our digital information that we share with one another. [...]

"In this country, we tend to protect copyright and we say, 'Well you can't share a movie without permission because it violates copyright.' But we have very little equivalent to protect your privacy as an individual."

How photos circulated with consent are different from those circulated without:

"It's just like every other sexual behavior. So sex without consent is rape. Consensual sex, not a problem.

"It's the same thing: Sexting with consent is a normal sexual behavior for a lot of teenagers and young adults. Sexting without consent is a privacy violation."

Whether parents should accept that teens will sext:

"Parents need to accept that this is going to happen, just like any other teen sexual behavior. [...] It doesn't work to say to teenagers just don't have sex. You can say it all you want, but they're going to have sex anyway. [...]

"It's the same thing with sexting. If you just say 'don't sext,' then you're opening people up to more harm and you're not having a more important conversation about how you can protect privacy, the importance of respecting other people's privacy and those broader issues about consent.

"If you just say 'don't sext,' and you pretend that it's not going to happen, then you're not providing any tools or skills of education of how to deal with sexting. [...]

"Parents can make their own choices, but from a research perspective, the evidence is very clear that taking an abstinence approach results in far worse outcomes."

What safer sexting could look like:

"Safer sexting has lot to do with teaching kids about consent, first and foremost. You must have consent before you send a photo to someone of yourself. You don't want to be sending a photo to someone who doesn't want to receive it, that can be a form of harassment. [...]

"Just like any other sexual behavior, consent is an ongoing dialog. You don't want to just send a sexual photo without any prior relationship or conversation of sexual content, that could be seen as harassing. [...] On the other side, if you receive a photo, you shouldn't be sending it out to anyone unless you have their permission and you have to ask them 'is it okay for me to share this?' Usually the answer is going to be no, it's not okay to share this.

"In fact, a study I did a couple years ago asked young adults if you receive a sexual photo is it okay to share it with someone else. More than 95 percent said no, it's obviously not okay, it's a sexual photo, that would be a violation of privacy. "