A bid for attention, a desire for increased popularity or notoriety among peers or modern-day flirtation " hormone-driven teens who engage in "sexting" are running smack up against the very laws designed to protect them against sexual exploitation by adults.
Sexting, the practice of sending nude or seminude photographs between cell phones, has resulted in teens nationwide being charged with possession or distribution of child pornography, as authorities grapple with how to properly address a phenomenon that didn't exist when current sexual exploitation laws were written.
In one Pennsylvania case reported in January, six teenagers " three boys and three girls " were charged with either manufacturing or possessing child pornography when school authorities found pictures on one student's cell phone after the student violated a "no cell phone use during school" policy.
And in another notorious sexting case in Ohio, a teenage girl hanged herself after a former boyfriend sent nude pictures of her to classmates, and some of those classmates harassed the girl.
A 2008 online study conducted for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com found that more than 20 percent of teen girls have taken nude or seminude pictures with a cell phone and sent them to someone or posted them online.
However, at least one researcher questions the 20 percent figure. In an April 2009 column by Carl Bialik on the Wall Street Journal Web site, David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said the survey results were skewed because the survey was conducted online.
"These kinds of samples select Internet cowboys and cowgirls," Finkelhor said. "These are more likely to be the kind of people who engage in this kind of activity." Finkelhor, who conducts his research by telephone, said online poll-takers are different from the average teen and might be two to four times more likely to send explicit photos of themselves.
In response to sexting cases in other states, Oklahoma lawmakers and prosecutors are taking a careful look at Oklahoma state laws to make sure youthful sexters aren't hit with lifelong adult consequences for ill-considered youthful indiscretions.
State Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, and Speaker Pro Tem Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, are reportedly conducting an interim study of laws in other states that might address sexting to explore the eventual results of filing felony charges against underage teens.
"If a 15-year-old girl is dating a 17-year-old guy, and she takes a picture of herself and sends it to him, and he takes a picture of himself and sends it to her, then ultimately they've both manufactured child pornography and they've also distributed child pornography," said Oklahoma City Police Lt. Shane Neal.? "Now, is the DAs office going to file cases specifically for that? That's questionable. Probably not."
NOT A CRIME
And as distasteful as overtly suggestive text-only cell phone messages sent between teenagers may be, Neal said, such messages are not considered a crime.
"In terms of sexting " talking dirty to one another "¦ that's not something we're going to investigate here because it's not a crime for them to talk in words, as long as they're both underage," he said.
Neal noted that the Oklahoma City Police Department's sex crime unit had investigated two or three alleged sexting cases in the past year.
Gayland Gieger and Scott Rowland, assistant district attorneys in Oklahoma County, said local prosecutors would take a careful look at the circumstances of sexting cases brought to the district attorney's office.
"When Gayland and I started talking about (sexting) the other day," Rowland said, "I started thinking, 'Gosh, is there a victim when the minors voluntarily make depictions of themselves?'"
Gieger concurred, noting that it's very often difficult to determine who is the victim in such cases.
"When you have a situation in which two underage kids are either flirting with each other, or they're in some type of a relationship and sending inappropriate pictures back and forth to each other, clearly we have to look at the intent of the statutes, whether or not there is a victim, and which of the two parties in that situation is the victim," Gieger said. "If the girl takes a picture of herself and sends it to the boy, are we going to prosecute him for possessing child pornography, or are we going to prosecute her for manufacturing child pornography? Or vice versa?
"First, I'm not sure there's any compelling (evidence of) criminal intent. Secondly, whether the interest of our community as a whole needs us to criminalize that type of behavior when it's consensual activity or voluntary activity between two children who have romantic feelings for each other."
Said Rowland: "We're going to have to scrutinize every one of these instances and try to figure out how to enforce this law, exercising our prosecutorial discretion to further the interests of the community. We're going to have to strike that balance on a case-by-case basis." "C.G. Niebank