Friday, July 02, 2010

PA House on Teen Sex: Incarcerate, Not Educate???

Earlier this week, the state House passed legislation, House Bill 2189, to create a new crime called "sexting." Sexting is when someone, often a teenager (although apparently senior citizens and pro athletes are doing it, too), sends photos of him- or herself in various stages of undress or engaged in sexual activity to another person or persons via electronic communication. HB 2189 makes it a misdemeanor for a minor to engage in sexting if the photos involve nudity and were sent for the purpose of sexual stimulation. It's a summary offense if the photo was sent to one other person and the sender had a reason to believe that the recipient wanted to receive the photo, e.g. the teenage couple sharing pics with each other.

Under this bill, the transmission or dissemination of photos of a minor engaged in sex acts, including transmitting a photo of one's self, could still be prosecuted under the felony child pornography statute.

Look, let's face it, teenagers are going to dumb things. They're at an age where they are increasingly aware of their sexuality, and, at the same time, their brains are at a stage of development where they don't yet have the ability to stop irrational behavior 100% of the time.

You show me an adult who didn't do foolish things as a teen, and I'll show you an adult with amnesia.

HB 2189 is simply wrong-headed. Turning our kids into criminals for their clumsy behavior is cruel. Addressing teen misbehavior is a job for parents and educators, not prosecutors.

And the bill is based on the false premise, stoked by some reps and district attorneys, that all sexting by minors is currently a felony, a point that is repeated, ad nauseum, by the media. In fact, if the photos only involve nudity and the production and distribution of the photos is consensual, it's protected expression under the First Amendment.

Fittingly, there is a bill to ensure that teen sexuality is addressed in a constructive fashion. House Bill 1163, the Healthy Youth Act, would set minimum standards on sex education for Pennsylvania's public schools. HB 1163 would guarantee that students receive medically-accurate sex ed. The curricula that would pass muster under this bill would emphasize that abstinence is the only 100% effective of way to stop pregnancy and the transmission of STDs and would teach kids science-based information about contraception.

House Bill 1163 is neatly tucked away in the House Appropriations Committee, and many observers think that's exactly where it's going to stay because the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Senator Jeffrey Piccola, has said that he won't consider the bill.

So to recap, the state House has passed a bill to turn kids into criminals for their clumsy sexual behavior and is simultaneously burying a bill to constructively teach kids about their sexuality, with the Senate Education Committee chairman as an accomplice.

In a word, this is a disgrace.

Andy in Harrisburg

(The poster above comes from a series of hilarious sex ed posters posted on Huffington Post earlier this week.)

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Anonymous Nancy Willard said...

I agree with the concerns expressed, but think there are additional concerns with this current legislation.

The most significant concern is that by criminalizing the creation of nude images - even at a misdemeanor level - Pennsylvania is setting up a situation where the teens who create these images are at a significantly high risk of sexual abuse. The emerging research is revealing that in many situations, the teens who are depicting themselves have been coerced, pressured, groomed into providing the images. Once the images have been provided, the grooming continues or it turns to blackmail - "Have sex with me or I will share your image - and you will be arrested." We already know that the victims of sexual abuse frequently do not report that abuse. What the heck does the PA legislature think is going to happen when they know they will be arrested? They are not going to read the fine print that they might have a defense if they have been exploited. They simply are not going to report and will likely capitulate to the abuse.

The legislation does nothing to reduce charges for teens who send these images to others. This behavior, I believe, should have the potential of leading to a minor criminal consequence - as a way to try to reduce the degree to which these images "go viral." Educational efforts, which I also fully support, are likely insufficient deterrence to this further dissemination. There are teens in your state who have been charged with felonies for these actions - clearly a total overreaction and very damaging. Misdemeanor that requires community service - clearly an appropriate response.

The last issue that is not addressed is the situation of young adults who are interacting with similar age peers - who happen to still be minors. Is Pennsylvania really prepared to register 20% of the young adults in the state as sex offenders for engaging in this activity? I am not sure what the PA statutory rape laws are - but is it possible that these young adults can have sex with minors, but will become registered sex offenders if they sext?

There is a report on sexting on my site - - that sets forth an analysis of the research, law, and provides recommendations for legislation, prevention, and intervention.

Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D.
Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use

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