It doesn’t matter if she gets all As. Or if he has good friends. For teenagers, sending and receiving nude photos is as common as underage drinking and having sex. But when images go viral, parents, schools, law enforcement, and victims are struggling to deal with the fallout.
photos by Darrell Eager
Some teenage boys collect stickers for their water bottles, limited edition brand shirts, Snapchat streaks. One 16-year-old at Shakopee High School, let’s call him Danny, collected nude images of teenage girls—roughly 100 X-rated photos and videos stored on his iPhone 6.
Danny [editor’s note: this story will use pseudonyms for sources who are minors throughout] had talked some of the girls into sending explicit selfies directly to him. Some of them were classmates, a few were from other metro schools, and at least one he knew only online. Other images he had gathered from buddies who had gotten them from girls they knew. Danny was one of about a dozen guys in a group chat set up to show off the nude images they had collected.
After he and his girlfriend of a year and a half broke up, she asked him to delete the photos she had sent to him. Danny didn’t. Instead, he shared them on the group chat. He also entertained his varsity hockey teammates in the locker room after practice and at a team pasta party by showing them his collection.
Word got out. Others learned about the group chat, and some girls were disturbed to see photos they had sent in confidence to one boy show up on another’s phone. In late January, the school resource officer (an officer from the local police force assigned to the school) heard about Danny, which triggered an investigation that implicated at least two dozen minors—boys and girls—in disseminating and possessing child pornography, a felony.
“This situation is common and representative of what’s happening out there today,” says Shakopee police detective Jim Blatzheim, who conducted the investigation at the high school. “One guy storehousing images and showing them over and over is maybe unique, but the actual sharing, and the way images were acquired, is totally routine. It happens every day in every community in the country. The sharing of [nude] images has become a normal part of teenage life in 2017.”
Sexting has become increasingly popular among teenagers since smartphones appeared a decade ago. A 2014 study published in Modern Medicine reported that 15–28 percent of middle and high school students had exchanged nude photos or sexually explicit texts—mostly photos. A 2012 survey by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) of 18-year-olds found 30 percent had sent nude pictures during high school, and 45 percent had received them.
“Parents are a little naïve that it’s happening,” says Giovan Jenkins, dean of 9th grade students at Minneapolis Washburn High School. “Moms tell me they don’t think their son or daughter would do this. ‘He has good friends.’ ‘She gets all A’s.’ Doesn’t matter. They’re kids. They all want to be accepted. Nobody’s immune from it because that’s what their peers are doing.”
In the Shakopee situation, more than a dozen girls had sent naked photos and videos of themselves. The vast majority weren’t the girls you’d expect to engage in such behavior: “normal, relatively healthy teenagers,” Blatzheim says. “They were very strong, together girls you wouldn’t suspect.”
“Sexting can be a really healthy thing for couples, especially if there are obstacles such as super strict parents, or they can’t see each other, maybe because one of them is at college,” says Kate, a 12th grader at a private college prep school, with sunglasses perched atop her blond hair and a white iPhone in her lap. “It’s a way for them to be sexual with each other.”
Kate is one of five students—four girls, one boy—from metro high schools gathered at The Depot Coffee House in Hopkins on a summer afternoon to share their stories about sexting for this article. She continues: “Parents shouldn’t be saying: ‘Don’t do it,’ but, ‘Be respectful.’ You must be able to trust one another. It can make you feel closer to someone if you do something that requires their trust.”
The other kids nod in agreement. “There’s a lot of body shaming,” says Olivia, a studious cheerleader at a suburban public school. “If two people are in a healthy relationship and willing to show what their body looks like, they’re building trust. It’s like sharing a gift with them.”
“It can be positive,” says Brian, a reserved 11th grader at a Catholic school with neatly trimmed blond hair. “Sexting is not always a bad thing or damaging.”
“If it’s forbidden, people are going to want to do it more,” adds Jane, an 11th grader at another suburban high school.
“I have friends who are strangers who sext,” says Charlotte, Jane’s classmate. Her hair is dyed blue on one side and shaved close to her head on the other. “They go to different schools, so there’s no risk factor. They are not in the same circles, so they don’t have reason to be mean to each other.”
In a typical scenario, a boy asks a girl to send him a photo, maybe of her breasts, maybe more revealing. They may be dating or simply acquaintances or just met online or via a dating app such as Tinder. And in most instances, that’s where it ends. Most teenagers, 79 percent, report that they have not experienced any harm as a result of their sexts, the MARC study found.
But not always. A boy might threaten to post a girl’s photo or share it with others if she doesn’t send more, usually demanding that they be more revealing. This happened at a local Catholic high school two years ago when a student solicited photos from a handful of younger girls at the school. Once they sent him one, he blackmailed them into sending more. They felt trapped.
Kids sext for a variety of reasons, but coercion is the most common. Several studies show that 50 to 70 percent of teenage girls who sent sexually explicit photos of themselves felt pressured to do so. “While equal numbers of boys and girls may sext voluntarily, girls are twice as likely to be among those who were pressured, coerced, blackmailed, or threatened into it—fully half of teen sexting in one large-scale survey fell into those categories,” Peggy Orenstein writes in her book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. “That’s particularly disturbing, since coercion into sexting appears to cause more long-term anxiety, depression, and trauma than coercion into real-life sex.”
Orenstein bases that statement on the findings of a 2015 survey of college students conducted by a developmental psychologist at Indiana University. The researcher concluded that the trauma caused by coercion to sext is greater than physical sex coercion and noted that someone who is pressured into sexting also seems likely to be pressured into having actual sex and to suffer physical abuse from her partner.
Though some girls like Olivia the cheerleader might believe that sending a nude selfie is a way to celebrate their bodies and validate their body image, experts like Orenstein and Shafia Zaloom, a health teacher in San Francisco and national consultant on teen health issues, don’t see it that way. “Some of these girls have a mistaken sense of empowerment,” Zaloom says. “They are unwittingly objectifying themselves.”
Kelsey Schultz, community education manager for myHealth teen clinic in Hopkins, attributes sexting in large part to a changing understanding of boundaries among teenagers. “Young people don’t understand privacy—everything they do is posted publicly [on social media],” Schultz says. “’Boundary’ isn’t in their vocabulary. We’re teaching young people it’s okay to have boundaries. Sexting is a beautiful opportunity for someone to advocate for themselves by saying, ‘No.’”
Many teens only recognize the benefits of boundaries once their privacy has been violated. According to Amy Adele Hasinoff, author of Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent, somewhere between 10 and 33 percent of sexters (abusive non-consensual cases comprising the higher number) have experienced a privacy violation or some other kind of harm, where the image is taken without knowledge or consent, or distributed beyond the intended recipient—or both.
Sixteen-year-old Lauren, for example, went to a party in Jordan last summer, drank to excess, and blacked out. She did not remember having sex with a boy at the party. Nor was she aware that another girl had taken a photo of her naked giving oral sex to one boy while another boy thrust his pelvis against her rear end—until she heard that the photo had been sent out in a group text among people she knew. Lauren told police she felt violated—not by the nonconsensual sex (she wrote that off as a drunken mistake), but by the photo taken without her permission.
The kids at The Depot recounted similar situations at their schools and think that anyone who violates trust should be held accountable. Brian heard a 16-year-old boy at his Catholic school boasting in the lunchroom about the naked images he had collected like trophies on his phone. Olivia mentioned a situation where two football players from her school took photos while having sex with a sophomore girl after all three had been drinking last fall. When the girl’s dad discovered the photos, the boys were suspended for two football games under high school league rules for drinking, nothing else. A girl at Kate’s private school sent a nude photo to a boy on the lacrosse team who forwarded it to his teammates. “Nothing happened,” Kate says. “There were no consequences. It feels like assault, a violation of someone’s privacy and trust.”
Minnesota Statute 617.246 states that taking, sending, or receiving an explicit picture of a person under 18 years old—even of oneself—is a felony punishable on the first offense by a fine as high as $20,000 or a prison sentence of up to 10 years. That classifies most sexting among teenagers as child pornography.
That’s enough to scare some kids from doing it. On the other hand, the severity of the law has allowed individuals such as Danny to escape legal consequences. When the penalties seem too harsh to fit the crime, county attorneys may decline to prosecute offenders; the decision is left to their discretion.
Noting that the child pornography law was written to target sexual predators, not kids sexting, Ron Hocevar, Scott County Attorney, says that after considering the intent, the overall circumstances, and the available evidence (which did not include Danny’s phone), he decided not to prosecute Danny on charges of possessing and disseminating child pornography. “You make the best judgment you can how to handle teens who do stupid things,” he says. “I would hope having their phones confiscated and having police detectives talk to them would make them want to change their behavior.”
In the Jordan situation, however, Hocevar did charge two 18-year-old males with possession of child pornography and one 18-year-old female who had forwarded the images with dissemination. All three pled guilty. The sentences of one male and the female were stayed, and they were placed on probation (for three and five years, respectively), required to do 40 hours of community service and to pay court fees. The other male is awaiting sentencing. While coercion to send photos can be difficult to prove, in cases such as this one where the victim did not even know photos were being taken, culpability is easier to discern. “You had an extremely intoxicated female having [sexual] things done to her and someone taking pictures,” Hocevar says. “There were definitely consent issues involved.”
School administrators seem even more ambivalent on how to address sexting among their students. The Minneapolis school district, for instance, mentions sexting by name in one of its policies, but remains vague in how it will handle violations. Nan Miller, the district’s director of policy development, says incidents of sexting usually fall under policies regarding sexual harassment, bullying, or hazing. That’s true for other districts as well.
While most incidents of sexting take place outside of schools, it becomes a school issue “if it creates a material and substantial disruption to the school day,” says Conn McCartan, principal of Eden Prairie High School, using the legal language that he admits is indefinite and leaves judgment calls largely in the hands of individual staff members.
Without adults knowing, photos passed among students during the school day cause distraction. It’s not unless someone complains or brings it to their attention that school administrators are likely to get involved. “The line whether or not it’s the school’s responsibility to intervene isn’t bright,” McCartan says. “That’s what makes it tricky to deal with.”
While some schools have offered informative talks to parents about the perils of sexting and how to monitor their children’s digital activity, no one seems to be training administrators, counselors, teachers, coaches, and other school staff how to deal with sexting they do encounter. They seem somewhat reluctant to get involved. “Generally, we do not take action unless there’s complaint, most likely from a student or parent,” Miller explains.
Compared to police, who need a warrant to search a student’s phone, schools have wider latitude, able to confiscate phones if they are used in violation of school rules. But school officials can search them only if they have a reasonable basis to do so—such as believing the student was viewing naked images of minors at the time. The law limits the scope of the search to only what the school officials are trying to find. If there is a criminal element to the situation (two 18-year-old students voluntarily sexting one another would not be a crime), schools usually turn it over to the police serving as school resource officers. Otherwise, they are likely to talk to the students involved and inform their parents. “It’s really not our problem,” says Jenkins, the Washburn dean. “It’s the parents’ problem because they own the phone.”
Hocevar, who speaks to parents and students about the dangers of sexting and social media, encourages parents to check their children’s phones frequently. He teaches them about apps disguised as calculators where teens store photos and others, such as Vault, that are password-protected.
Zaloom, the teen health issues consultant, believes monitoring these activities is a parental responsibility. “The same oversight we use in asking, ‘Where are you going tonight?’ needs to be exercised in digital space: checking phones, knowing passwords,” she says. “We’re negligent as parents if we are not monitoring their digital safety.”
Not everyone agrees with this invasive approach. Schultz, the myHealth community education manager, advises against searching kids’ phones. “That would derail trust,” she says. “Long-term, the best way to build a foundational relationship is to have a conversation that respects a young person’s experience and knowledge.”
Similarly, Hasinoff, author of Sexting Panic, believes checking a child’s phone without consent can send the message that it’s okay to violate someone else’s privacy. Instead, she exhorts parents to talk openly with their children. “The secret to educating teens about sexting is that it’s exactly like good sex ed,” Hasinoff writes. “That means it should be accurate, non-shaming, compassionate, and realistic. Talk about how the issues of sexual ethics, consent, and respect between partners are the same [with sex and sexting].”
Young people are looking for that sort of clear talk from their parents and other adults. “All we ever heard about sexting in school was ‘Don’t do it,’ which isn’t really helpful,” Charlotte says.
“It’s not a good situation when all you hear about it [sexting] is from your friends,” Jane says. “If they’ve had an awful or a good experience, you may think that’s all there is to it.”
“Try to understand why we’re doing it, our motivations,” Brian adds.
Kids such as those at The Depot may think sexting is a means to meaningful relationships, but Zaloom sees it as a dead-end shortcut. “They think communicating through their phone won’t be awkward, that they can be in control of the conversation without being vulnerable,” Zaloom says. “They fear vulnerability. They think it’s a weakness. [By texting in general and sexting in particular] they are not getting practice in how to read another person and the nuances of communication. Technology is a tool. It could never replace the value of authentic human relationships. Sexuality is a really intimate thing. I don’t think explicit pictures contribute to developing healthy relationships.”