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Monday, March 30, 2009

On moral panics and the definition of sexting

I do not plan to be the "sexting blogger" here at Prawfs. But John Parry of Lewis & Clark points me to this story from Oregon. A 17-year-old took a cell-phone video of another girl (then 16), who was drunk at a party, engaging in a sexual act with a dog owned by a 30-year-old man in the room; the filmer showed the video (which lasts for a bit less than one minute) to a male friend, who sent it to his phone. It is not clear whether that person disseminated the video. Arrest warrants were issued for all three of them and the girl and her male friend both have been charged with child pornography, which carries stiff mandatory minimums in Oregon.

I seriously doubt this case qualifies as "sexting." True, the word is a largely meaningless media-created one. But the paradigm that has been established (as described in the Oregonian story) is girls taking pictures/videos of themselves and sending/posting them between one another or to boyfriends. This story seems quite different, because it appears the subject of the video was drunk and the story does not make clear the connection between filmer and subject. But simply referring to this as sexting solely because it involves minors and a cell-phone video fails to capture how this departs the core definition. The word sexting is intended to describe something that is different than child porn (because it is self-depicting, consensual, non-exploitative, and, arguably, harmless). If so, the word cannot be used too broadly or to try to cover situations that do not share the elements or core characteristics of the paradigm.

The Oregonian story engages in this error, probably in an attempt to spice the story up by placing it in the sexy national obsession du jour. The piece cites statistics of teens and twenty-somethings who say they have sent or posted nude/partially nude photos of themselves. And it cites critics who insist "sex-crime laws were never meant to apply to teenage girls sending naughty photos of themselves to boyfriends, for example." (emphasis mine). What the author ignores, of course, is that those statistics and criticisms have absolutely nothing to do with this case, because the filmer was not posting a video/photo of herself or sending it to her boyfriend.

Actually, this is how moral panics pick up steam. We define some objectionable category of conduct broadly (often overly and inappropriately so). In doing so, we make the conduct appear far more pervasive than it really is and potentially more dangerous than the core really is. Policymakers might use the Oregon case as grounds to go after everything they can label as "sexting," even if the cases really are dramatically different.

All that said, we should be more thoughtful about legal categories. This may not be "harmless" sexting, but I am not sure it qualifies as child pornography, either. There must be other options. We can say the filmer did something wrong, without calling it child pornography and subjecting her to the mandatory minimums and sex-offender-registration requirements that come with it. But that may be less a problem of sexting and more a problem of a different moral panic over child pornography and child abuse.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 30, 2009 at 07:01 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Law and Politics | Permalink


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The Court's TRO issued late on Monday 3-30-09 may be found on my website www.JeffreySpangler.com or the ACLU of Pennsylvania site www.aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/milleretalvskumanick. (No photos are available for the curious preeves who have lurked around this case.)

Posted by: Jeff Spangler | Mar 30, 2009 10:55:09 PM

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