Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Last week, a sexting scandal that exploded at a Colorado high school brought to light the mixed messages kids receive in the pornified culture of 21st Century America.
“Consenting adults can do this to their hearts’ content,” said Thom LeDoux, the district attorney, but “if the subject is under the age of 18, that’s a problem.”
LeDoux said that "under state law it doesn’t matter whether a student took and shared explicit photos voluntarily—it is illegal,” reported The Wall Street Journal. “But he said he would use his discretion, looking at factors such as whether students were coerced.”
Most parents and educators don't want kids to be sent to jail or end up on sexual offender rolls for sexting. But they disagree on how this problem should be addressed, and some experts aren't even sure sexting, in and of itself, is a problem.
Researchers say the practice can lead to ostracism for the teenagers who shared their nude images, which are then circulated beyond the intended recipients. There are even “revenge porn web sites” where ex-boyfriends may post images of their girlfriend after a nasty breakup.
Yet one researcher told the Journal: “Sexting isn’t linked to mental health effects, absent coercion... sexting isn’t surprising among teens or fundamentally different from the behavior of past generations.”
On the New York Times' opinion page, the message to worried parents and educators is even more convoluted.
“It’s hardly certain that youth sexting is the dangerous scourge that most adults imagine,” asserted Jonathan Zimmerman, the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, in a Nov. 10 op-ed.
Then, Zimmerman shifted gears:
There are serious risks associated with teen sexting, including bullying and exposure to adult sexual predators. And we know that kids who sext are more likely to have sex than those who don’t.
Zimmerman's solution: schools should let trusted public healthcare groups, like Planned Parenthood, communicate with teens via text about the pros and cons of this practice.
Hmm... I went to Planned Parenthood's website for guidance on sexting. The site features morally neutral common sense information, but it also asks viewers if they want to make an appointment at a Planned Parenthood clinic and provides a convenient opportunity to donate to the nation's largest abortion provider.
Fight the New Drug, which has popularized the message, "Porn Kills Love," has a better strategy for helping teens deal with sexting.
But a larger question still needs to be answered: Why won't Zimmerman and other experts provide a consistent message that condemns sexting on moral grounds, as well as warning of its legal and emotional consequences?
Maybe because it is tough to denounce sexting with a straight face when mainstream culture is awash in sexually explicit images, and moms are reading bestsellers called Fifty Shades of Grey.
Civil libertarians and cultural elites have agreed to criminalize only one type of graphic image: child pornography. Yet sexting involves minors sending nude photos of themselves to friends and classmates via smartphones, and recent data suggest that perhaps 30% or more of high schoolers have taken part in this practice.
What should schools and parents do? This Daily Beast lede suggests we don't we have the stomach to stop sexting.
Wherever smartphones and sex hormones coexist, there will be sexting. To stop it, you would have to confiscate every camera in the country, dismantle all cell towers, and shut down the Internet.
Yet, in past years, we have joined together to dramatically reduce other forms of entrenched, risky behavior, like smoking. We throw up our hands about practices like sexting because we don't want to dig deeper and confront the broader problem of porn addiction and other habits we are tempted to normalize.
We don't need to shut down the Internet. But we have to figure out how to foster respect and reverence for the human body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. The first step is for churches to join together and challenge the lie that "consent" makes virtually any form of exploitive sexual practice okay.
Read More: Breaking Pornography's Corrosive Chains