New state law targets 'sexting' among youth

Some Austin teens say they don't do it and insist they've never even heard the word

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Teens snapping risqué photos of themselves and others via their cell phones and sending it to friends may seem harmless to them, but it can actually land them in jail.

The Illinois General Assembly last month passed legislation that would make it a crime to distribute nude images to another person without their permission. State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th) co-sponsored the measure, which passed in the Senate May 21 with a 56-0 vote. It's currently pending in the House.

The measure, House Bill 2537, makes it a criminal offense to sell or distribute a videotape or nude image of another person without written consent, and with the intent to damage a person's reputation. Uploading such images to the Internet would also violate the act, which is punishable of up to a year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine. The measure is meant to crack down on the teen craze of "sexting," or texting sexual images and messages. Among the more popular practices is sending nude or semi-nude photos of themselves and/or their peers to others.

But for some Austin teens, like students at Michele Clark High School, 5101 W. Harrison, and Austin Polytechnical Academy, 231 N. Pine, many said they have never heard of the term until asked by Austin Weekly News. They also insisted not knowing any friends who engage in sexting.

"Nobody does that. I don't get it. What's the point?" said Jhemeka Baldwin, a sophomore at Austin Polytech. The 16-year-old added that lawmakers should focus more on ending violence and increasing school funding.

Fellow student Quzeke Tenard, 15, asked: "Why would you send pictures of your body to somebody else?"

She added that most of her friends use their cell phones for what it is designed for: talking and texting.

Principal Bill Gerstein noted that his students do face many problems, and sexting was one of them. So far this school year, Austin Polytech has had fewer than five cases involving students harassing each other by sending sexually-explicit text messages. Gerstein has tried to bring the parties together with the parents to prevent it from repeating.

"We do take this seriously, but it is just the closest we've gotten to sexting," he said.

Sexting is a growing trend among young people. Last year, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy conducted a survey of 1280 teens and youth adults between the ages 13 to 26. It found that 20 percent said they have engaged in sexting.

But Lightford said the bill's intent is to curb sexting among teens unaware of the pitfalls of posting, or even taking, compromising pictures of themselves.

"You don't want to be put in a situation where it will cause you serious harm to your reputation and ... you become the 'bust down' of the high school," Lightford said.

In urban slang, a "bust-down" is a male or female willing to sleep with almost anyone.

Lightford added: "I thought it was important that we put teens on notice; that the 'sexting' craze is a serious offense, and you should not, without written consent, forward a nude image."

The sexting issue sparked debate one recent afternoon among Michele Clark High School seniors, especially the male students, during lunch period. Some seniors called it an invasion of privacy. Others questioned whether the law applies to 18 year olds, who are legally-adult teens. And still, others called it childish for someone to, for instance, send out intimate pictures of their "ex" because they broke up.

But Parish Thames, 18, questioned the need to criminalize the activity if mutually engaged by both parties. "They know what they are doing; so why should it be illegal?"

Then there were some students, like Clark senior Frank Sanders, 17, who believes the law should apply to those taking advantage of minors by placing images on the Internet.

"If it is a grown person and a child sending stuff back and forth, then that should be illegal," he insisted. "But if it is two teenagers sending stuff back and forth or two adults sending stuff back and forth, then it shouldn't be illegal."

Sexting, however, can have unforeseen consequences for youth.

Earlier this year, an 18-year-old Florida male was arrested and charged with sending child pornography when he sent nude photos of his ex-girlfriend out in a mass text message. He also had to register as a sex offender. In January, six western Pennsylvania teens- three boys and three girls- faced child pornography charges for sending provocative pictures of themselves via their cell phones.

Sometimes for teens, sexting can turn deadly.

In July 2008, 18-year-old Jesse Logan of Cincinnati committed suicide after her ex-boyfriend sent nude photos of her to her classmates who began taunting her.

Lightford stressed that the legislation forces teens to think about the consequences. And she hopes judges would use discretion when sentencing teens for violating the law, adding that charging teens with child pornography, or even as sex offenders, goes too far.

"I think that a Class A misdemeanor is sufficient enough to get the point across," she said. "I would hope if they're first-time offenders that the judge will allow this to be a learning mechanism for them."

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