Sexting like 'spin the bottle online,' prof argues (National Post)

Academics gather this week in Ottawa for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, presenting papers on everything from gender roles in folk dancing to cultural nationalism in a global world. Throughout the week, we showcase some of the most interesting research.

When a teenage girl knowingly sends provocative pictures of herself to friends or a boyfriend, is she guilty of child pornography or simply practising self-expression?

New research that looks at the criminalization of self-made images exchanged among consenting minors argues that the laws and public service campaigns designed to protect girls from becoming victims may actually be blaming the girls themselves and curbing their natural desire for sexual self-expression.

Teenagers sending provocative and even pornographic images via cellphones -- a practice known as sexting -- is really just a modern variation on "playing doctor or spin the bottle," Peter Cumming, an associate professor at York University in Toronto, argued in a paper on children's sexuality defending the practice.

"Technology does change things, and there can be very serious consequences," Prof. Cumming said. "But that obscures the fact that children and young people are sexual beings who have explored their sexuality in all times, and all cultures and all places. A distinction has to be made between nudity and child porn," he added.

Sexting grabbed headlines in recent months as teenagers in U.S. states such as Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas were charged with child pornography after sharing provocative pictures with classmates or friends. Last October, for example, a Texas teenager spent the night in a juvenile detention centre after his football coach found a provocative picture that was texted to him by a fellow student.

In some states, a convicted teen is forced to register as a sex offender for 10 years or more, even if he or she sees no jail time. While it is not a crime in Canada for two teenage minors to possess consensually produced nude pictures of each other for private viewing, the distribution of those pictures would, indeed, fall under child pornography laws.

Prof. Cumming was one of only a handful of researchers to present on sexting and child pornography at the largest annual gatherings of academics in Canada, a part of a small but growing body of research aimed at understanding this new, and sometimes feared, phenomenon.

Researchers such as Prof. Cumming and Amy Hasinoff, a doctoral candidate of the University of Illinois who delivers her paper on Friday, decry much of the current approach to sexting as overreactions that defy common sense.

"It would be very unlikely to see dozens of news stories announcing that some children were caught playing spin the bottle, or doctor, or strip poker," Prof. Cumming said in his presentation on Monday.

"Yet many of the cases brought forward have been on the same level of innocence and experience as those activities. In other words, kids are playing spin the bottle online."

According to the first and only survey of its kind by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy published in December, roughly 20% of American teenagers said they had practised sexting.

In her research to be presented at the end of the week, Ms. Hasinoff argues that just as the courts are missing the point by failing to distinguish between nudity and child pornography, the media are likewise doing more harm than good by portraying a girl's sexual self-expression as an invitation for sexual harassment.

Harassment, she said, could involve the non-consensual distribution of a private photo by a disgruntled ex-boyfriend, for example.

"The media and society seem to talk about girls as sexually naive and innocent," she said. "Then as soon as they become active, we deem them as deviant and blame them."

Although child pornography laws were designed to protect children, she explained, they are sometimes used against teens and deny them a full expression of their sexuality.

Indeed, according to the December survey, girls do appear to see sexting as a way of expressing themselves sexually. Slightly more girls than boys engage in the practice, and roughly 52% of those girls did so as a "sexy present" to their boyfriend.

Girls were also more likely to send suggestive photos and messages because it is "fun or flirtatious" -- not because they felt pressured by friends.

Rather than place the responsibility on girls to protect themselves against exploitation, public service announcements like cybertipline.com's ‘Think Before You Post' and recent episodes of talk shows like Dr. Phil and The Tyra Banks Show should instead have focused on teaching boys to respect girls and their sexuality.

"This kind of advice denies girls actually have sexual desires," Ms. Hasinoff said, adding that this approach erroneously links self-respect to a girl's ability to censor her sexuality.