Judging from the sexting prosecutions in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana this year, it’s clear that the criminal-justice system is too blunt an instrument to resolve a problem that reflects more about the volatile combination of teens and technology than about some national cybercrime spree. Parents need to remind their teens that a dumb moment can last a lifetime in cyberspace. But judges and prosecutors need to understand that a lifetime of cyberhumiliation shouldn’t be grounds for a lifelong real criminal record.
In the juvenile justice field, I’m the guy who evaluates sexual aggression in teens.* I’ve evaluated clients, all male, who’ve downloaded a lot of child pornography and “sexted” (themselves and their girlfriends). I’ve also had a few clients who’ve used MySpace to put up dehumanizing pictures of their exes. While there is a huge difference in all of these circumstances, the law treats all of these instances as the same kind of abuse.
Legislators want to treat all “sex offenses” as equal in the eyes of the law. When it comes to juveniles, nuance is needed. Not all behaviors described as “experimental” are really experimental. Some juveniles exploit and abuse other children. We can, and should, prevent some of these behaviors with comprehensive sexual education. This education would not just focus on the reproductive system, but it should also address boundaries within relationships, appropriate behaviors and provide juveniles with a safe way to answer their questions about their bodies.
Because we fail to do this, and we have made sex a taboo, juveniles turn to less savory methods of learning about sex and sexuality. I was in fifth grade when I learned about the human reproductive system. My education came in two classrooms: Mrs. Murphy’s class room every other friday instead of Reading and every morning by the oak tree at St. Cletus. In 1988, we didn’t have camera equipped cell phones, but we did have dirty playing cards, playboys and father’s who had an extensive repertoire of dirty jokes (I miss you dad). In my 100+ evaluations, I’d say less than 30% have had some form of formal sexual education by the fifth grade. This includes the suburban cases that I have had. About 60% have had talks from their parents about, “safer sex, how to treat girls and wear a condom.” Guess where they get the rest of their education? Google, TMZ, Fox, HBO and the playground. Twenty two years later, our culture has increasingly conflicting ideas about sex, but they still have valid questions about what is, and is not, appropriate sexual behavior.
We are failing kids by having draconian laws for juveniles–laws requiring juvenile registration–but not providing the kids with the direction they need to navigate our confusing world. Want to cut down on sexting? Teach kids bounderies.
Parents need to teach their children about sex, sexuality and appropriate sexual behaviors. Schools need to do this as well. Taking away cellphones will not work, nor will treating juveniles as adults. Education is the best way to address this issue.
*For the record, when we get the kinds of cases that Dahlia references, we use group counseling methods to teach proper boundaries, sex education and appropriate sexual behaviors. Most of these cases are diverted from the court system; however, when we evaluate children who are using videos (or child pornography) as a part of their sexually aggressive behavior, or we are concerned about their sexual fantasies, we arrange (or provide) more intensive treatment for this juveniles.