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University of Iowa News Release


Jan. 14, 2011

Iowa law student suggests new laws to combat sexting

States might be better off combating teen sexting with new laws that directly address the issue rather than adapting obscenity or pornography laws already on the books, a University of Iowa law student and researcher suggests in a new article.

Elizabeth Ryan, a third year law student at the UI, said that because of the technology involved in sexting, revising current laws is not the most effective way of addressing it.

“The social and technological implications of sexting are startling, but sexting is also a controversial legal issue because prosecutors do not agree on whether and how to prosecute minors and young adults who engage in it,” said Ryan.

Sexting is the use of cell phone text messaging services to send nude photos to other people. The practice has become increasingly common among minors who don’t consider the potential ramifications before they take the photo and hit send, and who later suffer emotional distress when the person who receives the photo forwards it to friends or puts it on public display.

Some states have revised current statutes to combat sexting, and some local prosecutors have used obscenity and child pornography laws to prosecute or threaten to prosecute sexters. But Ryan said those efforts do little to reduce sexting or provide a legal remedy for its victims.

Ryan thinks new sexting laws should distinguish between two different types of sexting: primary sexting, which is sending a nude phone of one’s self, and secondary sexting, which is sending a nude photo of another person. Most laws that have been revised to address sexting fail to distinguish between the two types, which she thinks is important because secondary texting is a far more serious offense.

“Primary sexting is usually consensual and in the context of a relationship,” Ryan said. Secondary sexting, however, is committed most often without the knowledge or consent of the person in the photo. Frequently, she said, secondary sexting is done to publicly embarrass another person.

For primary texting, she suggests states establish juvenile diversion programs aimed primarily at education and rehabilitation so the person who sent the text knows the potential dangers of sexting.

Secondary sexting, on the other hand, should impose criminal penalties.

While secondary sexting among adults is also increasing, Ryan said governments are more limited in what they can do to prevent it because criminal laws don’t prevent the distribution of nude photos of adults. Buts she said that states can support private lawsuits against the people who send the nude photo by the person in the photo on invasion of privacy or emotional distress grounds.

Ryan’s note, “Sexting: How the State Can Prevent a Moment of Indiscretion from Leading to a Lifetime of Unintended Consequences for Minors and Young Adults,” was published in the November 2010 issue of the Iowa Law Review.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

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