Sexting Laws in the United States

Many states have sexting laws to protect minors against harassment

Young woman texting on her bed

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As mobile devices have become more common, so has a new form of harassment known as "sexting." Fortunately, many states have passed laws criminalizing such behavior. Learn about the sexting laws in your state to protect yourself and your children.

What Is Sexting?

According to Ph.D. Elizabeth Hartney, sexting is “the act of sending sexually explicit material through text messages.” From disgraced New York Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner to teen sexting cases in Colorado, Ohio, and Connecticut, instances of this form of cyber harassment keep popping up in headlines.

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. However, those aren’t the only consequences to be concerned about; sexting can result in a tarnished reputation, which could affect potential career opportunities and scholastic pursuits. It could even result in legal jeopardy.

Sexting Laws by State

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 among 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 establishes penalties for minors, which include warnings, fines, probation, and detention.

States that have enacted specific 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 and registration as a sex offender. As the New York Times explains:

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.

Recognizing that sexting is an activity that many teens participate in, 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 since sexting is more likely to occur during the evening hours. Make the conversation a two-way street so that your child is able to ask questions and confide in you. 

Sexting Affects Adults Too

If an adult sends unsolicited sexual messages to another adult, that by itself is not a crime. That said, if the messages are part of a broader pattern of harassment or intimidation, the offender may be charged under existing harassment laws.

Furthermore, more than half of US states have passed laws criminalizing "revenge porn," or the act of distributing sexually explicit images of someone without their consent.