Sexting Laws in the United States

Many states now have specific sexting laws.

Young woman texting
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Despite serious consequences, sexting has gained in popularity.

As the use of mobile devices has gained in popularity, so has an activity associated with them: sexting. According to PhD Elizabeth Hartney, sexting is “the act of sending sexually explicit material through text messages,” and the results of doing so seem to crop up as headlines more and more frequently. From disgraced New York Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, to teen sexting cases in Colorado, Ohio, and Connecticut, sexting seems to be gaining in popularity despite the damaging consequences that can result.

 

Bullying prevention advocate Sherri Gordon has identified a slew of potential repercussions that could result from sexting including embarrassment, humiliation, loss of friendships as well as feelings of guilt, shame, and hopelessness. But those aren’t the only consequences to be concerned about — sexting can result in a tarnished reputation which could affect the potential for career opportunities and scholastic pursuits.  It could even result in a legal issue.

Many states now have sexting laws.

An adult who sends or receives sexually explicit material of someone under the age of 18 is subject to prosecution under federal law, which could result in hefty fines and incarceration. Because sexting has become so popular amongst teens, many states have enacted specific laws that address sexting by minors under the age of 18, or even 17 in some cases. Many more states are considering legislation that establish penalties for minors, which include warnings, fines, probation and detention.

 

States that have enacted sexting laws include:

Arizona
Arkansas
Connecticut
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Louisiana
Nebraska
Nevada
New Jersey
New York
North Dakota
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Dakota
Texas
Utah
Vermont
West Virginia

Why states are enacting sexting laws.

In states without specific sexting legislation, the possession of sexually explicit material portraying minors falls under child pornography laws that have the potential to result in felony charges registration as a sex offender.

As the New York Times explained, “Teenagers who sext are in a precarious legal position. Though in most states teenagers who are close in age can legally have consensual sex, if they create and share sexually explicit images of themselves, they are technically producing, distributing or possessing child pornography. The laws that cover this situation, passed decades ago, were meant to apply to adults who exploited children and require those convicted under them to register as sex offenders.” The Times goes on to report that “in the past, partners wrote love letters, sent suggestive Polaroids and had phone sex. Today, for better or worse, this kind of interpersonal sexual communication also occurs in a digital format.” Recognizing that sexting is an activity that many teens participate in — its estimated that a third of 16- and 17-year olds have sexted — many states have established laws that carry lesser penalties in an attempt to prevent lives from being ruined because of participation in a widespread, modern-day activity. 

What to do if your child is sexting. 

Licensed clinical social worker Amy Morin suggests several steps to take if you find that your child is participating in sexting.

You should consider whether there is a legal issue, and if so, contact a lawyer who specializes in sex crimes in your state. Don’t look at the pictures — viewing or distributing them could result in you being charged with possessing child pornography. Communicate your disapproval and establish consequences, which could include restricting access to mobile devices, particularly overnight as sexting is more likely to occur during the evening hours. And keep communication open — make the conversation a two-way street so that your child is able to ask questions and confide in you. 

Updated by Christina Michelle Bailey, 5/19/16.

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