Why Your Son needs Fatherly Advice about "Sexting"

by Jordan Dickie

As grown men, we all remember what it's like to be a boy on the brink of manhood: the subversive sexual angst; passing notes to a girl in our class; and, of course, that tell-tale "stash" tucked under our beds.  But what happens when that otherwise normal teenaged sexuality begins to incorporate modern technology?  What happens when the content of your average teenager's cell phone constitutes child pornography?  And how does a father tell his son that he could be committing a sex crime legally on par with rape and statutory pedophilia simply by pushing a button on his cell phone?


This is where the American legal system has fallen behind the times.  Thanks to the prevalence of cell phones and laptops in schools, teenaged boys are being convicted of sex crimes, and even being registered on their state's sex offender registries, for the possession and distribution of child pornography.  But how is this happening?  How is it even possible that our teenagers have suddenly become a generation of sexual predators?


The answer is that they haven't.  They've merely fallen victim to the technologies that have made it all too easy to blur the line between typical teenaged behavior and a felony that would otherwise be prosecuted by a district attorney.  It's the perfect example of where the technologies that have come to define our children's culture have left the American judicial system scrambling to catch up. 


It's called "Sexting": the technological equivalent of passing dirty notes to your girlfriend in class.  The only difference is, with sexting, winks, kisses, and other intimate affections can now be captured in digital photos and sent instantly from one cell phone to another.  Unfortunately, these photos can cause a lot of trouble if they find their way into the wrong hands, and what's even worse is that they can even land a fourteen-year-old boy on the sex offender registry in Indiana for the possession and distribution of child pornography.


In Orlando, Florida, eighteen-year-old Phillip Alpert is serving probation for a crime that had him registered as a sex offender.  He made the mistake of emailing nude pictures of his teenaged girlfriend after they broke up.  It's an unfortunate case of immaturity on Phillip's part, most certainly, but an otherwise common occurrence in an age where teenaged relationships will often end with the release of flirtatious images after someone's feelings were hurt.  This legally turns into a case of possession and distribution of child pornography, however, because his girlfriend of two years was sixteen at the time.  And even though Phillip was seventeen when the pictures were taken, and it was his girlfriend who took them, because he had them in his possession and was sharing him after he turned eighteen, Phillip was legally an adult sex offender.


"You will find me on the registered sex offender list next to people who had raped children, molested kids, things like that, because I sent child pornography," the newly-turned eighteen-year-old Phillip said.  "You think of child pornography, you think of six-year-old, three-year-old little kids who can't think for themselves, who are taken advantage of.  That really wasn't the case."


After releasing the photos of his girlfriend to his friends, Phillip was arrested by Florida police, charged, and finally convicted for the possession and distribution of child pornography.  He was sentenced to five years probation and as required by Florida law, because he was technically an adult during the offence, Phillip was registered as a sex offender on a publicly accessible state website. 


"I'm a sex offender," Phillip says.  "If you type my name into the search engine online, you will find me."


Phillip has since then been kicked out of college, cannot travel out of the country without contacting his probation officer, and is currently having trouble finding a job because of his status as a convicted felon - and he will continue to be registered as such until his name is finally removed from the registry after he turns forty-three. 


What makes this legal phenomenon an even more compelling issue is the fact that Florida is considered one of the more lenient states when it comes to juveniles convicted of sex offences.  In Florida, Main, and Alaska, offenders are only put on the sex offender registry if they are tried as adults.  Among the thirty-eight states that include juvenile sex offenders in their registries, however, South Dakota juveniles can be registered at fifteen, and in Indiana, offenders can be registered on publicly-accessible registries as young as fourteen. 


"Sexting is treated as child pornography in almost every state, and it catches teens completely off guard because this is a fairly natural and normal thing for them to do," Phillip's attorney, Larry Walters, says.  "Some judges have the good sense and reasonableness to treat this as a social problem, but others are more zealous in their efforts...  I think it's time, as a society, that we step back a little bit and avoid this temptation to lock up our children."


It's certainly enough to boggle a parent's mind: the idea that a fourteen-year-old boy living in Pierre, South Dakota, could find himself convicted and registered as a sex offender for most of his adult life - and all for a few images of his girlfriend on his cell phone.  Even more unfortunate still, it looks as though sexting is going to have to take a level of precedence during father-son talks that would otherwise be reserved for the facts of life.  If a fourteen-year-old boy can be charged with a sex offence for something as simple as this, it should be a father's priority to explain to his son how important it is to use his cell phone responsibly before he's even old enough to go to Junior High.


Hopefully the law-makers of this country will realize that teenagers who sext each other are not on the same level as rapists and pedophiles.  Until then, it's the responsibility of parents with teenagers to take action, and here's how:


1)     Get involved in any legislation that involves downgrading sexting from a felony to a misdemeanor (a step in the right direction that will at the very least keep teens convicted of sexting off the sex offender registry).


2)     Write your state's lawmakers and voice your opinion.  Condemn those that fail to recognize sexting as normal teenaged behavior, and raise awareness that state law should have nothing to do with the intimate electronic behavior between two consenting young adults.


3)     And, most importantly, TALK to your teen about sexting; don't just let them be blind-sided by state law.  Have a candid conversation about what sexting is, what the laws are, and the consequences.  The majority of teens caught for distribution didn't even know what they were doing was a crime - don't let this be your kid.


A father should only have to explain to his son the importance of respecting his girlfriend in the information age, and why it's so important to keep intimate material like this private.  State law, however, forces a father to explain the legal and life-changing consequences of 20th century child pornography laws that overreact to what, in actuality, are the contents of a typical teen's cell phone.  Write lawmakers, get active, talk to your son, and keep legislation like this from ruining his life. 


copyright (c) 2011 FatherMag.com


About the author:

Jordan Dickie is CEO and Executive Editor of BestWord SEO Copywriting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.