Decriminalizing Sexting


Manassas Case Rekindles Debate Over Penalties for Sexting

The recent efforts of Manassas police and Prince William County prosecutors to photograph the erect genitalia of a 17-year-old boy for evidence in a “sexting” case has revived a debate in Virginia over whether such conduct between minors should be illegal at all . . .

Sexting is a phenomenon that emerged with the digital age, the sending of nude or semi-nude photos via a smartphone. In the “old days” people exchanged polaroids if they could, easier to hide, and to destroy.

If charges are brought, punishment, even for consenting teens, can include jail time and a permanent place on the Sex Offender Database along with all the pedophiles and child pornographers and rapists.

“The laws are outdated and literally make my daughter a violator,” the mother said.

First Amendment lawyers across the country defend these cases and many work on forging better state and federal legislation that would make sexting a misdemeanor with counseling and education versus felony punishments. Some lawyers and some defendant’s parents reject even that notion, positing that teens sexting with their friends doesn’t constitute pornography — that is free speech covered under the First Amendment. But we are along way from this sane point of view in the United States. 

[The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia] opposes . . . any bill that will put sexting into the state  has opposed Surovell’s bill and similar attempts to put sexting into the state code. “We will resist as actively as we can anything that seeks to define this behavior as criminal at any level,” said executive director Claire Gastañaga. “Making it a misdemeanor just invites prosecutions and convictions.”

Another lawyer, Jonathan L. Phillips, who has defended sexting teens and worked on new legislations, calls their use of smartphones, “immaculate weapons of their own self-destruction.” 

A friend of mine, Lawrence G. Walters, Esq., is a nationally recognized expert on the front lines of this issue for a long time, defending cases and fighting to drop or reduce charges and shorten sentences. Click here to learn more.

What’s going on in your state? in your community? Should sexting between consenting minors, or adults for that matter, be a crime? Let us know what you think!

Teens Thinking About Homophobia Must Dig Deeper

Note: the slurs in this video are not censored to enable a frank discussion.

These teens were shown a video of a recent homophobic reaction on a public street by Jonah Hill, the actor, and another video showing his apology on a late night talk show where he was a guest. It is worth watching to the end because it takes a while for some of these teens to get close to the crux of the problem in both the slur and the apology.

The teens were especially struck by Hill’s apology that noted his long-standing support the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and his regret that he was provoked by paparazzi that had been dogging him all day. Hill said, at that moment, he wanted to say the “most terrible thing he could think of” but he didn’t mean it in a homophobic way. A total disconnect relieving him of any actual responsibility for what he said.

Most of these teens come very close to concluding that homophobic slurs are never okay outside your small circle of friends who would know it was in jest. Some decided on the spot to stop using these slurs in consideration of anyone who might be listening and be hurt by them.

That’s a noble first step but we have to dig deeper. This is not just a homophobic slur — it’s actual homophobia.

What all of these public displays of homophobia reveal is a very real central belief buried in the consciousness of the person speaking them, that calling out someone as gay or a f**got or a c**k-sucker is the worse thing you could say. You may be a straight person like Hill or Alec Baldwin, and may even have done some stuff to advance the rights of LGBT persons, but when you want to shout back in anger you draw on your true character, who you really are as a person.

A better apology is that you found you needed counseling and education to find out why you, yourself, view being gay so negatively, and that you will work hard in the future to help yourself and others understand that gay is actually good, certainly as good as choosing to be a heterosexual.

These celebrities, whose social contract assumes public displays of their good, bad, and ugly expressions, shouldn’t get off the hook with faux apologies focused on what a good LGBT supporter they have been. They were caught showing something deep inside them that triggered the reaction in the first place, and as painful as that is, it’s not something that should be swept under the rug.


Want Teens to Have Positive Sexual Health? Sex-Positivity Can Help With That

“Informed teens are much more likely to wait for first intercourse, use condoms and other barrier and birth control methods at first intercourse, and are more likely to take responsibility regarding their own sexual health.” Emily E. Prior

But not just any information given to teens will produce such a result. For decades, sex education programming in schools across America have used an agenda of fear tactics to teach teens that sex is bad, sexual pleasure is sin, and homosexuality is a mental illness. It’s time that Americans realize this approach of scaring teens from having sex doesn’t work: 46.8% of high school students report having engaged in sexual intercourse, with the rate increasing to 63.1% for high school seniors.

Using fear tactics in sex education is like hanging on the edge of a cliff: a person doesn’t have to be forced on to the edge to experience fear to know how dangerous it is. Similarly, if teachers taught comprehensive sex education using open, honest communication, then students will stay away from the cliff’s edge and practice safe sex.

So if you can’t scare teens from having sex, what else can we do?

The exact opposite of what doesn’t work: educate teens using sex-positive approaches. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) created the concept of sex-positive and sex-negative when he hypothesized that some societies view sexual expression as essentially good and healthy, while other societies take an overall negative view of sexuality and seek to repress and control the sex drive. Does the later ring a bell?

Emily E. Prior, the Director of the Center for Positive Sexuality, describes being sex-positive as “not limiting sexual scripts to reproduction and procreative-only sex, but also the pleasurable, rewarding, and nonprocreative aspects of sexuality.” However, Prior warns that this does not mean educators should start “promoting” sex, but rather, “recognizing sexuality as a normal, healthy part of being a person and that everyone is a sexual being.” But this is not a new concept: just check out the Dutch.

So how can educators utilize sex-positivity in the classroom? Prior has a tip.

First, educators can create a sex-positive classroom space: “A sex-positive space,” Prior begins, “is an open and accepting space where [students] can feel comfortable to be themselves, communicate with one another, and be accepting, not just tolerant, of others’ differences related to sexuality and sexual behavior.” This means that students who identify with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and questioning (LGBTQ)  community will not be excluded or stigmatized, which typically happens in a sex-negative space. Also, as Prior eloquently puts it, a sex-positive approach “allows teens to recognize their personal and sexual development as an ongoing, lifelong, and healthy process. By allowing for communication and individual expression, teens are much more likely to make healthy choices that work for their bodies.” 

The differences between a sex-positive approach to sex and the sex-negative approach to sex, with the former reflected in comprehensive sex education and the later used in abstinence-only education.

Sounds great to me! And it should sound great to everyone who wants to help teens become sexually responsible and reduce America’s high rates of unintended teen pregnancies and transmission of STIs and HIV–and who doesn’t? Let’s face it: teens are going to have sex no matter if we try to scare them or not, so we might as well suck it up and give them the information and tools they need to be safe once they decide to have sex, be it during high school or after marriage.

Creative Commons Image by: epSos.de
Creative Commons Original Image by: bluekdesign
Imaged Edited by: Alifa Watkins

High School Students Need Someone to Talk to About Sex Without Shame

(También en Español)

News of Note: High School Students Need Someone to Talk to About Sex Without Shame

The other day, as a reward for finishing their state tests, I was letting my students talk quietly in groups and do word games. I sat next to three of my ninth graders (three girls and a boy) and quickly joined in on their discussion.

They were talking about teenage pregnancy, noticing the high number of girls in the school who were currently pregnant. The tone of the conversation started playful, but the students were asking some very serious questions.  The sole male student in our group directed the following question to me:

“Yo, Miss– who do you think is more responsible for getting pregnant—the boy or the girl?”

Before I could answer the girls quickly interjected their own opinions. It was the boy’s responsibility, because he was the one who needed to use a condom.  It was the girl’s responsibility because she shouldn’t be letting a boy go that far.  It was the parents’ responsibility because they should be monitoring their kids.

Reeling the conversation back in, I answered, “First of all, I think it’s everyone’s responsibility because the consequences affect each person.  But I think that’s the wrong question.  My question is: why are teenagers getting pregnant, in the first place?  And I think the honest answer is that you guys just don’t receive a good sex education in school.”

To my surprise, the kids enthusiastically agreed. Many were quick to point out that they had had no sex education in their public schools.  And they were even quicker to insist that they needed it.

What followed was a barrage of basic sex-ed questions on topics from prophylactics to periods to pregnancy, some of which astonished me in their naïveté.  For example, one of my students asked if using condoms was even “worth it” because “a lot of times they don’t work.”  Astonished to find that several of my students were nodding in agreement, it dawned on me that this is a direct consequence of the misinformation spread with abstinence-only sex education.

Why are so many kids clueless about sex? Our society doesn’t embrace sex as a human right or something we are all entitled to experience. I do not understand how something as inherent, necessary, and enjoyable as sex could be so stigmatized and avoided. Regardless of why the taboos that follow sex persist, we must wake to the inevitability of sex. If kids and teens are not taught honest and useful information about sex, birth control, pregnancy, etc, more unwanted children will continue to be conceived and another generation of the sexually repressed will guide our future.

Proclamation of Masturbation: Joycelyn Elders Gives Masturbation Thumbs Up (Part I)

(También en Español)

previous Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders

In 1994, then Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, MD, proclaimed, “With regard to masturbation, I think that it is something that is a part of human sexuality and a part of something that should perhaps be taught.”

Masturbation being taught in schools? This statement is not one of shock, confusion, and contempt (or even a question) in countries where comprehensive sex education thrives, such as in the Netherlands, but in the United States, it sparked a nation-wide controversy that resulted in the termination of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

So what was the fuss about?

Joycelyn Elders has been a strong, public advocate for comprehensive health education in schools since her days as a pediatrician in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1970s. As a chief pediatric resident, she combined a successful clinical practice with research in pediatric endocrinology, which lead her to work with juveniles with insulin-dependent diabetes. Over her tenure of 20 years, she recognized that diabetic females face a health risk if they become pregnant too young. These hazards include spontaneous abortion and possible congenital abnormalities in the infant. In order to limit these threats, Elders found it crucial to talk about the dangers of pregnancy to her patients and distribute contraceptives. The direct result of her doctor-to-patient education was that only one of her 520 juvenile diabetic patients became pregnant. This sparked Elders’ study of sexual behavior and involvement with public sector advocacy.

With these experiences and her passion to address the issue of teen pregnancy, she broke new ground by advocating for in-school clinics that included contraceptive services. Elders was successful in opening 18 school-based health clinics, with some distributing condoms, and expanding sex education throughout Arkansas. Yet, Elders’ work did not stay within state borders, because she understood that there were thousands of young adults in the United States whose sexual behavior went unmonitored and whose irresponsible, uneducated actions were contributing to the country’s notorious reputation of having the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the industrialized world. Moreover, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases was on the rise, with the scare of AIDS frightening all sexually active people. This unhealthy, apprehensive sexual climate fueled Elders commitment to comprehensive sex education and demand for bolder government involvement and an intense public education campaign.

However, a black woman cannot publicly talk about sex in America for too long without upsetting certain groups and making a few enemies. Elders’ progressive work was catching the eye of both political conservatives, who criticized her effort to increase the government’s role in the private sexual lives of U.S. citizens, and members of some religious groups, who feared that the distribution of condoms would increase sexual activity and rejected sex education in schools as sanctioning abortion.

Just as the single sperm lead to the population of this world, comprehensive sex education should be the single method of sexual health education to teach Earth’s population about sex, sexuality, and sexual health.

Elders contested these outrageous claims by stating that abstinence education does not work because, in the real world, young people will continue to have sex, and that is it the job of adults and the government to turn an irresponsible action into a responsible one. She maintained that this could be accomplished through education: sex education would help prevent unwanted pregnancy from ever occurring, counteracting the practice of abortion.

Even with her courageous and logical retorts to her critics, by the time Surgeon General Elders made her approval of masturbation known at the United Nations World AIDS Day in 1994, the political climate was against her favor. Her suggestion that masturbation was a healthy part of sexuality and should be taught in schools enraged both conservatives and moderates alike. As a result, President Clinton, who personally nominated Elders for the position of Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service only a year earlier, forced her to resigned, stating that she demonstrated values that were “contrary to the administration.” To the conservatives, Elders was warped, dangerous, and a lunatic because she was a rare public official who could actually speak lucidly, heroically, and fearlessly about what people didn’t want to hear.

But Elders’ words were exactly what the country needed to hear and to think about. Masturbation is a healthy part of human sexuality and a valid activity to help reduce risky sexual behavior, and it was about time that everyone realized sex education needed to be talked about openly and honestly for the sake of America’s youth and their sexual health.

The U.S. government was afraid to take a stand with Elders in fear of the public perceiving it as perverse and immoral. Yet in reality, in the absence of comprehensive sex education, the abundance of advertisements, television shows, movies, etc., that are laden with sexual innuendo, even some with blatant sexual references, is itself perverse and unjust to all youth.

Young people are bombarded by sexual media, but when seeking answers to their questions about their sexual health and sexuality, the resources are scarce and often completely unavailable. Some phone-text-based sex eduction sites have recently come on the scene and are a good step toward connecting youth directly with answers to their pressing questions.

Elders symbolizes knowledge, education, and truth. She was not afraid to address these issues and answer young people’s questions, which made her powerful as well as threatening and fearsome to the government, conservatives, moderates, and some religious group. And what do people typically do with what they think is threatening to them? Get rid of it. Unfortunately for Elders’ opponents, they could not get rid of her so easily, and she is now breaking new ground at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Program in Human Sexuality with the Jocelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education.

U.S. Teen Birthrates Are Down, But Still High in Bible Belt

(También en Español)
News of Note: U.S. Teen Birthrates Are Down, But Still High in These States

In 2009, a landmark study found a strong correlation between religion and teen pregnancy. The CDC’s newest data suggests not much has changed. Teen pregnancy closely follows the contours of America’s Bible belt, according to the map (above) from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

It’s quite clear that teenagers want to have sex and no amount of discouragement or abstinence-only sex education is going to stop them.

The religious idea that sex should only exist for procreation has no business denying teenagers access to valuable health information (about birth control). Take a look at divorce rates in the bible belt, they are equally embarrassing. How much longer do you think this hypocrisy will last before everyone realizes it’s okay to enjoy sex?

The new legal theory that enables homophobic evangelizing in US schools

(También en Español)

News of Note: The new legal theory that enables homophobic evangelising in US schools

Last month, 8,000 public high school students in Montgomery County, Maryland, went home with fliers informing them that no one is “born gay” and offering therapy if they experienced “unwanted same-sex attraction”.

The group behind the flier, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), isn’t the kind one expects to find represented in student backpacks. Peter Sprigg, a board member of PFOX who doubles as a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, recently told Chris Matthews that he believes “gay behavior” should be “criminalized.” PFOX president Greg Quinlan told another talk show host that gays and lesbians practice “sexual cannibalism.”

The Family Research Council is a documented “hate group,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Truth Wins Out (TWO), a high-profile organization fighting anti-gay religious extremism, has covered the Montgomery school fliers, and even filed a lawsuit recently against PFOX and Greg Quinlan for defamation — Quinlan resorted to accusing TWO Executive Director, Wayne Besen, of threatening his life. Such an obvious attempt to smear TWO should only serve to further paint PFOX as the bigots that they really are.

I can only imagine the amount of bullying and self-loathing that these fliers generate. Kids are discovering their own sexuality in high school, discovering who they are.

Over the past 20 years, legal advocacy groups of the religious right – a collection of entities that now command budgets totaling over $100m per year – have been pushing a new legal theory, one that has taken hold of some parts of the popular imagination and that has even been enshrined in recent judicial rulings. The essence of the theory is that religion isn’t religion, after all; it’s really just speech from a religious viewpoint. Borrowing from the rhetoric of the civil rights movements, the advocates of the new theory cry “discrimination” in the face of every attempt to treat religion as something different from any other kind of speech.

These religious groups do not have the ability to distinguish between religious dogma and rational thought. Freedom of religion is great because it also gives us freedom from religion. We need to actively label the intolerance that these groups spew as religion, and never allow them to sneak into public schools.

I like to imagine a future that is more progressive. With hate groups like PFOX finding ways to teach their backwards ideas in public schools, the future we all want to see protected is being undermined. If you have experienced similar intolerance or bigotry, we would be happy to add your story to our continuing coverage of this most important issue.

What We Can Learn From the Dutch About Teen Sex

What Mind Reading: What We Can Learn From the Dutch About Teen Sex

 “Teen birth rates are eight times higher in the U.S. than in Holland. Abortion rates are twice as high. The American AIDS rate is three times greater than that of the Dutch. What are they doing right that we’re not?…

“Coming out of the sexual revolution, the Dutch really decoupled sex from marriage, but they didn’t decouple sex from love. If the first piece is that there weren’t these immediate associations of teen sex with danger, the second is that it remained anchored in the concept of steady relationships and young people being in love….

“It seems terribly sad to me that we view teenage love as being about “just hormones” and teen boys as incapable of being in love — but then we turn around and bemoan this culture of “hooking up,” when we’ve basically given adolescents no space to actually have loving relationships….”

If embracing sexuality is proven to be so healthy in Europe, how does America justify its aversion to it? It’s quite clear that repressing sexuality does not improve relationships or encourage healthy sexuality activity. We are denying young people one of their most basic human rights, real sexual freedom.

Image source: Courtney Carmody