U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner may not have broken any laws by texting lewd photos of himself to younger women he didn’t know.
In many states, however, teens who send pictures of themselves to their own girlfriends or boyfriends can be prosecuted for child pornography.
Allyson Pereira calls that hypocrisy. She should know. She’s spent six years dealing with the consequences of “sexting” one topless image of herself to an ex-boyfriend.
Allyson was 15 at the time, and the boy said he’d date her again if she’d send him the photo. But he was playing her. According to Allyson, he sent the private image to his entire contact list.
For the next three years at Wallkill Valley Regional High School in northern New Jersey, she was bullied and ostracized. Paint cans were thrown in her family’s pool. A tire was rolled down their driveway, smashing a glass door to the house.
“It’s actually made me stronger,” she said in an interview with JJIE, “but there were times when I really was suicidal. If it hadn’t been for my family and one or two friends, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“I can’t even tell you what it was like to live with that,” her mother says. “These kids can be so cruel to each other.”
But Allyson and her family were afraid to report the situation to police because Allyson could have been prosecuted for sending child pornography — of herself.
In an effort to protect children, both Congress and state legislatures have passed tough criminal laws designating the electronic distribution of nude images of teenagers as child pornography and often requiring those convicted of “sexting” to be registered as sex offenders. The problem is that a net thrown by the legal system to catch adults who exploit children is now more effective at ensnaring children.
Most states now require youths who send nude or semi-nude images of minors to be criminally prosecuted. Alabama, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are among those where teenagers as young as 13 have been prosecuted or convicted for sexting.
One of those teens was Phillip Alpert of Orlando, Fla. At 3:28 in the morning after an argument with his 16-year-old girlfriend, Phillip, who had just turned 18, sent a semi-nude image of the girlfriend to her contact list. Her parents reported his actions to the police, who descended on his house with a search warrant.
Phillip faced 72 charges of various sorts, including the possession and distribution of child pornography. He was kicked out of school and, after pleading guilty, placed on probation for three years.
Most troubling of all, he’ll be listed as a sex offender until he’s 43. In Florida, that means he must tell the state when and where he moves; he can’t live near any schools, parks or playgrounds; and his offender’s status will show up on any Internet search of his name.
Allyson, who’s now 21, met Phillip in February 2010, when the two were the focus of an MTV special, “Sexting in America: When Privates Go Public.” After three years of keeping the abuse she was suffering private (and, to be sure, after she graduated from the high school where much of that bullying was centered), the fate of two girls who’d sent pictures of themselves to boys they liked finally motivated Allyson to go public. Just as in Allyson’s case, the two girls’ photos had been forwarded to others, and the two girls became the objects of brutal teasing.
Then, in June 2008, Jesse Logan, 18, of Cincinnati, Ohio, hanged herself in her room. And in September 2009, 13-year-old Hope Witsell of Ruskin, Fla., stunned the nation by doing the same.
Since deciding to go public in early 2010, Allyson has spoken regularly to school groups about sexting and has made national media appearances. She’s a member of the “street team” for MTV’s “A Thin Line” cyber-bullying project and is at work on a book about sexting.
Along with other advocates, Allyson wants sexting among minors to be decriminalized. She says any softening of the law should apply to minors who distribute others’ images as well as those who send images of themselves.
“All it takes is for you to press ‘send’ and in a millisecond it’s out there and you can’t take it back,” she says. “[Girls] just impulsively send it. They don’t think of the consequences. And the same with the boys who are passing it on. They don’t think about how it might affect the person who’s pictured.”
Both the teens who send images of themselves and the teens who distribute them to others would benefit from counseling more than they would by being designated sex offenders, she said.
Allyson and her mother are doing everything they can to push for a bill currently before the New Jersey state legislature that would decriminalize the first conviction for sexting. New Jersey Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt, the bill’s sponsor, stresses that her legislation requires counseling rather than criminal punishment for first-time offenders.
“This is something that can go viral in seconds, so this could ruin a child’s live, and then on top of that they could be considered sex offenders,” she notes.
Lampitt’s bill has worked its way through the state Assembly, which is the New Jersey legislature’s lower chamber. Today, it’s up for consideration in a Senate committee.
Similar legislation is being considered or already have passed in other states. Lawmakers in Weiner’s home state of New York are considering a bill that would give judges the discretion to divert teen sexters to an “educational reform program.”
In Florida, where so many of the most sensational incidents happen to have occurred, this year’s Legislature passed a bill that will decriminalize the first sexting offense by a minor, making it punishable by up to eight hours of community service and a $60 fine. The second incident would be a misdemeanor.
It’s unclear whether the Florida legislation, which takes affect in October, will save from criminal charges the two latest Florida kids to be charged with sexting.
Last week, in Hernando Beach, Fla., the family of a 15-year-old boy reported to police that their son had been threatened by another student. The 15-year-old boy’s girlfriend had sent an image of herself to him. A second boy saw the girl’s image on the other person’s phone, and threatened the 15-year-old boy, according to an affidavit.
But when the family of the 15-year-old boy reported the threat and provided police with a flash card containing the image, police didn’t charge the boy who allegedly threatened their son. They arrested the 15-year-old and his girlfriend.
That’s the kind of case where Allyson Pereira sees hypocrisy. While adult celebrities cast images of themselves all across the Internet, teenagers who show the same poor judgment can be charged with a crime.
“If you look at Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, they can do these things and get away with it,” Allyson said, referring to two celebrities who’ve boosted their careers by sending out lewd images of themselves. “And kids think they can do it and it’s cool. And then they do it, and they can get arrested.”