Documenting and denial: discourses of sexual self-exploitation
by Leigh Goldstein
In December 2008, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com published a report summarizing the findings of a survey they had commissioned on adolescents, twenty-somethings, technology and sexuality. Entitled, appropriately enough, “Sex and Tech,” the report and related articles were made available on each organization’s website, along with press releases highlighting some of the statistics that the survey of 1280 subjects had generated. The report was immediately followed by an Associated Press article citing its findings. The story was then picked up by several newspapers, online magazines, cable news programs, each calling particular attention to one statistic: twenty percent of teens overall (i.e., boys and girls) have “sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves.”[open endnotes in new window]
Judging from the spate of articles that have followed since its publication, the “Sex and Tech” study seems to have lent statistical credence to a practice that legal scholars and some journalists have been addressing for the past few years. Generally referred to as “sexting” or “self-produced child pornography,” this practice involves adolescents taking pictures of themselves naked or barely clothed or engaged in a sexual act and then posting the images online or texting or emailing them to friends. As the label “self-produced child pornography” indicates, the production, distribution and possession of these images is a criminal act if the subject photographed is under eighteen. Minors participating in this seemingly innocuous form of flirtatious or erotic exchange have been formally charged with production and distribution or possession of child pornography.
For example, in a 2004 Florida state case, a sixteen-year-old girl (A.H.) was adjudicated as a delinquent for taking pictures of herself having sex with her seventeen-year-old boyfriend and then emailing them from his computer to hers. And in 2002, in Seattle, Washington, August Anthony Vezzoni, then sixteen years old, was adjudicated as delinquent for showing nude photographs of a former girlfriend to friends at school. Or, to take a more recent example that has received much media attention, three teenage girls in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, were charged in January 2009 with producing and distributing child pornography for taking and then sending nude pictures of their own fourteen and fifteen year old bodies and then texting the images to their friends. Three boys (aged 16 and 17) who received the images were charged with possession of child pornography. In the last six years, similar charges have been brought against minors in Alabama, Connecticut, Denver, Florida, Georgia, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
These cases, and the media coverage they receive, all attest to the fact that child pornography has become a crime in which minors are constructed as perpetrators as well as victims. This paradoxical stance towards minors, predicated on a construction of children as innocent and punishment of those who defile that construct, is propped up by complex argumentation on the part of judges and legal scholars as well as some equally convoluted thinking on the part of journalists. Before further engaging with both those forms of discourse and the ways in which they construct children, I would like to address the question of statistical research and the dearth of up to date studies on child pornography within U.S. academia.
The circulation of dubious statistics and conjectures regarding child pornography should be read as an inevitable consequence of the legal penalties for having any encounter with pornographic material featuring subjects who are minors. The very act of approaching persons under eighteen and asking them if they produce, possess, or distribute erotic material featuring themselves (or another minor) constitutes a crime. One’s standing as scholar or researcher makes no difference from a legal perspective. Ask a minor about naked photos and you are soliciting contraband and harassing a child.
While the current legislation against child pornography is certainly a research hurdle, I want to make clear that its consequences extend beyond the fate of the minors who produce it or the scholars who would hope to study them. By criminalizing self-produced child pornography, our government has effectively censored minors’ right to record their sexualities or erotic identities. It is as though the existence of underage sex dealt a bad enough blow to our culture’s construction of childhood; the production of a visual record of such acts has been designated as beyond the pale, a social practice that must be eradicated.
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