by Shaena, Social Media Volunteer
I can recall a time in middle school where a group of giggling pre-teens huddled around their friend to look at a nude photo someone had sent. It was pretty much accepted that if somebody obtained a nude or partially nude photo that it would be shared frivolously among peers. I didn’t think much of it at 13 years old, but I now understand the deeper implications of sharing others’ private photos or videos without their permission. In our technologically centered society, instantaneous communication and access to information has become commonplace. As most of us know, sexting (sending someone sexually explicit photographs or messages via cell phone) has become a recurrent, normalized, dating practice in the last 5 to 10 years. This is particularly true with teenagers. A recent study indicated that 1 in 5 teens admitted to engaging in sexting.
While it’s perfectly natural for young people to be sexually curious and sexting seems to be pretty common with high-school aged folks, sexting as a minor has its risks. First of all, many people do not know that sexting while under 18 years old is illegal. Though specific state laws vary, the PROTECT Act, a federal law established in 2003, prohibits obtaining or producing sexually explicit or nude material of a minor. Such material falls under child pornography and anyone distributing it could be forced to register as a sex offender. Most teenagers are unaware of this law.
This brings me back to the anecdote I shared at the beginning of this post: what happens when sexts are distributed by the recipient without consent from the person who sent them? This can be devastating for adults and young people alike but teen sexting, in particular, can take a dark turn in a myriad of ways. Not only can sexts be a component in bullying and harassment by peers, but can also be a tool used to maintain power and control in an abusive relationship. Data collected in 2008 indicated one in three adolescent females in the U.S. had encountered physical, emotional and/or verbal abuse from a romantic partner. It is also not uncommon for teens to feel pressured to send explicit photos to their partners. Some examples: teens might fear that refusing to send a nude picture might anger their partner or the partner might make statements like, “I sent you one, why won’t you send one back?” and “you would send it if you actually loved me.” One study showed that 51% of teenage girls who sent sexually suggestive photos felt pressured to do so. Once an abusive partner has a hold of the photos/videos, the abuser can retain control of the survivor by threatening to share it on social media or via text. In the event of a break-up, the abuser may also distribute the explicit material to get revenge and humiliate the survivor. The fact that this material is out there floating in cyberspace, and accessible by anyone can serve as a potential burden that follows the survivor into their personal and professional lives. This type of sexual abuse is often referred to as “revenge porn.” The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative describes it as “the distribution of nude/sexually explicit photos and/or videos of an individual without their consent. Revenge porn, sometimes called cyber-rape or non-consensual pornography, is usually posted by a scorned ex-lover or friend, in order to seek revenge after a relationship has gone sour.” It becomes particularly dangerous for the target if this person’s personal information is attached to the photos.
Until recently, there was little to no protection for survivors of non-consensual pornography. After all, perpetrators are afforded the anonymity of sitting behind their computer screens. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act implemented in 1998 made posting or sharing any type of digital media not belonging to the sender against the law. However, this law was not designed specifically with revenge porn in mind as it focuses primarily on copyright infringement. In January 2014, new penal codes were added in California to criminalize the non-consensual distribution of any nude or sexually explicit photos regardless of whether the photo was taken by the perpetrator or the survivor. This is certainly a step forward in protecting survivors being controlled by such threats of non-consensual pornography.
If you or someone you know fears that nude photos of them were distributed without their consent, here are some additional resources that may help: