Chances are that you’ve heard the word “sexting” before, even if you’re not entirely sure what it is. The term “sexting” describes the sending and receiving of sexually explicit photos, messages, and video clips by text, email, or by posting them on social networking sites. Some people who “sext” each other are romantically involved (boyfriend/girlfriend, married couples).
While sexting is common among adults, it has also increased in popularity among teenagers. High school students have begun sexting, and it raises concerns about their safety. Young people may send images and messages to their friends, partners, or even strangers they meet online.
Sometimes, children might feel pressured to take pictures of themselves or pass on those taken by others. They may want to please a demanding boyfriend or girlfriend or do what they think everyone else is doing. They may have even been coerced by an adult or someone they’ve met online.
As children have no control over how and where images and messages spread online, sexting leaves them vulnerable to bullying, humiliation, and embarrassment, or even blackmail.
Why is Sexting Illegal?
You may wonder why sexting can be illegal. What would be wrong with trading a few sexy photos with your significant other? Generally speaking, private sharing of nude or suggestive photos between consenting adults is not, in fact, illegal. However, many states have laws that make sexting a crime.
There are risks to sexting that many people may not consider in the heat of the moment. While it may seem harmless, it can result in serious problems and create potential conflict. There is always the potential for hackers to gain access to your phone, which may allow them to see your photos and copy them to use later (for nefarious purposes).
You may intend to share a picture with just one person, but the problem happens when it gets forwarded to multiple people or even posted on the internet for the world to see.
Although young people may see sexting as a harmless activity by taking, sharing, or receiving an image, it can have a long-lasting impact on a child’s self-esteem. It raises concerns about:
- Bullying: This is a common problem, especially among high school students. Photos can be used to bully the person in the photograph. A new form of bullying involves the distribution of sext messages through mass texting to classmates or other students at school. In some states, this behavior may qualify as cyberbullying. The victim of the bullying may suffer from emotional distress as a result and may require counseling to help them deal with the repercussions of the situation.
- Harassment and Stalking: In some cases, sexting can be an example of harassment or stalking. Even in states that do not have a specific law against sexting, a person who frequently sends nude pictures to someone else can be charged with harassment or stalking. Unfortunately been reported cases of suicide by minors linked to sexting images without the person’s consent.
- Revenge Porn: Intentional distribution of non-consensual porn, or “revenge porn,” is online harassment that occurs when a former partner, or even a hacker, posts explicit sexual images of a person online without their permission. All 50 states have laws prohibiting this sort of distribution of pictures or videos. But what exactly is revenge porn? Does it always mean that someone wants revenge and posts pornographic images of a person they are angry at? Certainly, that is one aspect of revenge porn. But in many jurisdictions, the offender doesn’t need to be exacting revenge on the victim. The offender need only intend to distribute the material to harass or annoy the victim.
- Workplace Sexting: Sexting can also trigger issues relating to sexual harassment in the employment setting. If someone receives unwanted sexual texts and reports it to their supervisor, the harasser could face serious consequences. This can include being written up, termination, or even criminal charges.
Sexting and Child Pornography
Child pornography is on the rise. It clogs the internet. In 2021, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reviewed over 250,000 web pages and found 72% to contain “Child Sexual Abuse Materials” (CSAM). This is an increase of 163% from the year before.
Additionally, they reported a 360% growth in self-generated CSAM of 7- to 10-year-olds compared to the same period the year before. If the person in the photo or video is a minor child, the recipient can be charged with possession of child pornography. Cases that involve child pornography are taken very seriously and can often result in felony criminal charges.
Which States Have Sexting Laws?
The law is still catching up with modern technology, and sexting is still a relatively new phenomenon. Nevertheless, at least 27 states across the U.S. (including Arizona, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Utah, Florida, and Hawaii) have some form of laws regarding sexting, and many others are either considering introducing bills or already have bills working their way through their legislatures.
What are the Penalties for Sexting?
The details of sexting laws may be slightly different depending on what state you live in. Some states will only punish sexting materials if they include a photo or image of a child or a minor. Common legal penalties will vary depending on your state and the nature of the message or photo, but they can generally include:
- Jail or prison time, depending on the nature of and circumstances surrounding the messaging
- Fines (usually up to $1,000)
- Mandatory counseling, especially for minors who sext
- Restriction of driving privileges for minors who sext
Sexting can result in misdemeanor or felony charges, depending on the circumstances of the individual case. In most cases, felony charges can result if the sexting involves child pornography issues and the recipient of the photo is an adult.
Several states also have laws that make teen sexting illegal without involving child pornography. New laws specifically targeted at teen sexting are intended to educate young people about the dangers of sexting. In many cases, violations of these laws can result in punishments involving fines and community service hours.
A Special Case: Sexting by Minors
When children or minors engage in sexting,, they create an indecent image of a person under the age of 18, which, even if they take it themselves, which is against the law.
Distributing an indecent image of a child – e.g., sending it via text – is illegal, even if it’s consensually between two 17-year-olds. It’s very unlikely that a child would be prosecuted for a first offense, but the police might want to investigate.
Even when the photo or message is being sent to a friend, sexting still violates child pornography statutes. Convicted teens may even have to register as sex offenders.
Explicit content can spread quickly over the internet and affect a child’s reputation. This may result in different treatment at school and their community, both now and in the future. It could also affect their education and employment prospects as online reputation stays around longer.
Do I Need to Consult a Lawyer If I am Facing Charges for Sexting?
If you are facing legal issues regarding sexting, it is best to talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer can help you talk through the situation that brought up the charges and explain how the sexting laws in your state work. If you are facing criminal charges, it is important that you talk to a lawyer about representation during hearings and presenting your best defense in court.
If you are a victim of sexting and are considering pursuing legal action against the perpetrator, you also may want to consult a personal injury lawyer to help you navigate the legal system and advise you about the best course of action.