GUEST COLUMN: Kids playing doctor aren't felony sex offenders
Juvenile cellphone "sexting" is the technological equivalent of playing doctor, something that has been part of human behavior for as long as anyone can remember. Sexual curiosity is a natural part of physical and emotional development in children, and only the most zealous of prudes would argue that innocent exploration ought to constitute a crime.
The problem today is that what was usually a private, consensual and fleeting guilty pleasure too often now becomes a matter of permanent public record thanks to technology. Turning curious juveniles into criminals with lifetime felony sex-offender records however goes so far beyond the pale of justice or reason that something must be done.
To that end, two bills have been introduced in the state Legislature that would reduce the criminal penalties involved depending on the exact circumstances while also preventing the prosecution of kids who are sent sexually explicit images without their consent provided that they either report them or delete them within 72 hours.
House Bill 1320 by Rep. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs also requires the creation of a restorative justice program that seeks to modify inappropriate juvenile behavior by requiring offenders to acknowledge the harm they have done and do some penance, which is the modern societal equivalent of a trip behind the woodshed with dad and a leather strap, which was usually pretty effective but these days would be considered felony child abuse by some.
Educating young people on the unintended consequences of their actions and requiring them to acknowledge their error and somehow compensate the victim is the rational way of dealing with many juvenile misbehaviors, including sexting.
A few details need to be ironed out to fill some loopholes with respect to the potential for printing out and distributing electronically-created images, and the law must make it plain that consensual electronic show-me between juvenile peers cannot end up with anyone on a sex-offender registry, but these bills are an excellent start on righting a gross injustice in our laws.
The laudable goal of stamping out child pornography should not be dismissed or disparaged because it involves adults deliberately abusing children for the gratification of other adults, which is an intolerable affront to the dignity of the victims and society.
Harsh penalties for child exploitation are perfectly appropriate, but making a felony of juvenile "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" victimizes willing participants far more than the unintended escape and schoolwide circulation of a photo created by the child. As a society we have to back from the ick-factor, knee-jerk moral-outrage overreaction that our laws reflect and deal with the problem in a far less prudish, judgmental and unwarrantedly harsh manner.
We as adults in today's hypersexualized culture are largely responsible for creating and tacitly approving of this sort of childish misbehavior by virtue of our constant and practically unavoidable consumption of salacious imagery. Sexual freedom in today's media is a double-edged sword that keeps us free but can also cut us to the quick by harming our children.
Our societal sexual mores are astonishingly liberated compared with even 50 years ago, and the debate over the unintended consequences of our libidinous culture will rage on for generations. Our culture is reviled and hated by some other cultures precisely because of our expressions of sexual liberty and equality, which are decried as perverse and harmful. In some cases this criticism may have some validity, but not in this case.
Whatever our adult cultural sexual mores may be, we should not be branding with the scarlet letter children whose sexual curiosity and interest we as adults have in large part created and sanctioned. We need to teach them to handle their budding sexuality with more restraint and respect than we too often do with our own, not punish them for life for emulating us.
Scott Weiser is an award-winning freelance journalist.