High school senior Katherine Stevens has never kissed a boy. But she has had sex over text message.
Stevens, who attends Notre Dame High School in Monterey, is one of many teens all over the country participating in “sexting,” the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos over the phone.
“I started talking to one person who I met on Facebook, and it just happened,” she said. “I feel really close with him physically and emotionally even though I have never met him.” Stevens only sexts through text and said she is uncomfortable with sending photos.
Sexting started with the introduction of Short Message Service text messaging in 2003, and has become more common every year according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Twenty percent of teens ages 13 to 19 say they have sent nude photos of themselves on their phones, according to a study from late 2008 by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The same study showed that 39 percent of teens say they send sexually suggestive messages.
Robert Adanto, a middle school teacher at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, said he catches students text-messaging in his class almost daily.
“Every student should know about the dark reality of technology, and should know the stories of those who have suffered consequences for certain images or messages being made public,” Adanto said. According to Adanto, students from almost every Los Angeles private school have been suspended, expelled, or otherwise punished for sexting, especially with photos.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s study showed that 15 percent of teens who sent nude images of themselves did so to people they knew only online. Shuli Lotan, Coordinator of School Based Programs at Family Service Santa Monica, said she is worried teens are inviting dangerous situations by sending their photos to strangers, and that schools can play a part in preventing these situations.
“Having smaller group discussions could help talk to kids about the potential risks, but the reason a kid is doing it, whether it is because of insecurities, confusion or issues at home, should be addressed more than the punishment or consequences,” Lotan said.
However, high schools both public and private all over the country have recently held assemblies attempting to dissuade students from sexting. These schools have also changed their policies to cut down on sexting among their student body, said Susan Jay, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Santa Monica. She said many of these changes limit what contact is acceptable between sexes.
Jay said schools are trying to protect themselves by being less tolerant of any sexual contact whatsoever.
“I don’t think schools should be as ridiculously restrictive as they are becoming by enforcing such intense punishments for this trend,” she said. “Sexting is a problem, but not allowing kids to interact and discover their who they are, both sexually and not, only makes them more likely to do it.”
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s study also showed that 22 percent of teens said they are personally more aggressive and forward when sexting than they are in real life. Jay said that this would prevent teens from developing socially and could make them more likely to have dysfunctional relationships in the future.
“Everything is much more sexualized now than it used to be. It makes young people jaded in terms of sexuality,” Jay said. “There is an over exposure and over stimulation. It is too much too soon.”
The sexting craze is accompanied by an increase in legal attention to it. Many cities, such as San Diego, have established entire teams within their police departments to monitor sexting, according to the Lead Council Corner website. These teams track text messages to find people who send or are sent explicit photos.
It is illegal to possess, distribute or manufacture pornography involving anyone less than 18 years of age, according to Lead Council Corner. Because of this, minors found distributing or possessing such images can be found guilty of child pornography, and can face up to ten years in prison.
James W. Spertus, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor in West Los Angeles, said sexting is not the conduct these laws were designed to prevent.
“Being on trial is a hardship that a teenager should never bear for something as silly as sexting,” he said. “I frown upon prosecutors who are applying old laws literally and creating nightmares for young people.”
There are two conflicting public policies and interests at war on the issue, said Claudia Ribet, a partner in the Barbakow & Ribet Law Firm in Beverly Hills. These are the First Amendment right to possess or repeat any written or other information, and the public policy to preserve the safety of minors, Ribbet said.
Sexting has not only sparked legal ramifications. Social scientists have also observed that the definition and structure of a relationship is changing.
“Sexting takes the personal intimacy out of relationships,” Lotan said. “It is rewiring the way our brains communicate with each other by making everyone in conversation all of the time.” Lotan said this rewiring causes a blurring in relationships of what is real and what is not.
Stevens said sexting has not detracted from the realness of her relationship, and instead makes her feel closer with her partner.
“Sexting is what you make of it,” she said. “It’s just like any other new technology, relationships change with the times but they can always be special.”