Taking nude pictures of yourself–nothing good can come of it.
–Police Capt. George Seranko, Greensburg, Pennsylvania
The police captain might be right, in one sense. Particularly for the unskilled or ill equipped, getting the angle right, the focus and lighting just so, might be an effort–too much for the unsteady hand, the shy poser, the butterfingers. Much better to take nude pictures with someone else, to make a game of it, a performance of seeing and being seen, an amuse-bouche before the banquet, or maybe in place of it. Safe sex, unless you're a teenager, in which case someone might want to arrest you.
Captain Seranko made his observation after three girls and three boys at Greensburg Salem High School were charged with child pornography. The girls, ages 14 and 15, are charged with taking pictures of themselves, nude or seminude; the boys, 15, 16 and 17, with receiving them. The cellphone in which these dangerous images were lodged had been confiscated at school, not an outrageous exercise of authority if school officials had merely stashed the phone in a drawer, unmolested, until the student could collect it. But the officials had to snoop. One can picture their fevered actions, fumbling with the student's phone, opening one folder, then another, maddened as they press the wrong buttons and must begin again, without the nimbleness of youth–curses!–their otherwise desiccated imaginations now fertile with anticipated indecency; scouring through the teen's pictures and messages, expectant that their suspicions will be confirmed, certain that all they want is to protect the children… And yet, there they are, instant oglers, prying into places not meant for them, gazing at images not made for them, drenching the relationship between school authority and student in sex.
The recent attention to teen "sexting" has focused quite a lot on the presumed self-exploitation of kids, not so much on the prurient reflex of grown-ups who spy on and punish them. It has dwelt quite a lot on the traps of technology, not so much on the desires that precede picking up a camera. Quite a lot on the question of whether the teens are sex offenders or merely stupid, sluttish or mean, not so much on the freedom to see and be. Quite a lot on the legal meaning of images, not so much on the ways in which making them might delight, or on the cultural freakout that colors law, images and how they are perceived.
No one knows how many kids are poised for long sentences, life sentences (a possibility under federal law), plea deals that cast them in the pariah-land of sex offenders. Prosecutors have gone after teens in at least Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. School and police investigators in many states have searched students' phones, and now that the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has estimated that one in five teenagers is taking and sending nude or seminude pictures of themselves, and four in ten are sending sexed-up text messages, kids generally are at risk of surveillance or worse.