I get nervous when state legislators or Congress members get involved in the specifics of sex education, particularly in mandating its content. My nervousness stems from the various struggles over sex ed I’ve had with New Jersey legislators over the years as a New Jersey State Board of Education member and executive coordinator (now senior advisor) of Answer. I’ve won and lost battles, and I know that adolescents’ needs are often sacrificed to the political process, which can be about survival and ideology—not education and health.
After I failed to convince a state senator to vote against a sex ed bill that required teachers to “stress abstinence” but withheld equal instruction about contraception, he told me, “I’m not going to sacrifice my career for this issue.” He knew perfectly well that young people need balanced, complete sex education, but he wouldn’t vote for their interests in case his constituents wouldn’t return him to office.
I’ve tried to persuade politicians to be more open-minded and been struck by the fact that many base their decisions about sex ed on fear and what they learned (or didn’t learn) during their own past sex ed classes. They don’t base their decisions on what teens need to know to be safe today.
So I got concerned when I read this recent Times of Trenton headline: “Assembly OKs bill 78-0 to let sexting teens avoid prosecution.” Sexting is the slang term for using a cell phone or similar device to distribute sexually explicit pictures or video. It also refers to sexually explicit text messages.
It is a punishable offence in the United States for teens or adults to send sexually explicit pictures of children or teens under 18 through electronic devices. Teens who send sexually explicit photographs of themselves, or other teens via cell phone can be charged with distribution of child pornography. Twenty percent of teens acknowledge sharing explicit photos, and 44% of high school boys say they’ve viewed a nude or semi-nude photo on a cell phone during school.
I was relieved when I read that N.J. Assembly members showed leniency to teens caught sexting and sending or receiving explicit [nude or semi-nude] photos on a computer or cell phone to other teens. The Assembly passed a law offering teens an educational program as an alternative to prosecution, serving time, and possibly having to register as sex offenders. Instead, first-time sexting offenders would be required to write an essay or attend “a responsibility management course” as part of the educational program.
Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D. Camden), a sponsor of the bill, said that “juveniles do stupid things, and with the click of a switch, they could send [a sexually explicit picture] to somebody, and that particular picture could be sent off to many other people with an additional click.”
Lampitt’s comment plays into the stereotype that all teens do stupid things, but at least she’s more understanding and protective of them than the politicians who’d rather they face child pornography charges. She added that the law assures teens that the educational program penalty won’t be on their record when they apply to college or a job.
This moderate approach received praise. Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, said that New Jersey should be congratulated, because “helping young people understand the possible consequences of their actions is better than providing them with a record.”
While the proposed law shows empathy for teens, I don’t think it goes far enough, because educators’ roles are not mentioned at all. Perhaps senators, who will next consider the bill, need to seek information about what is actually taught about sexting in New Jersey’s middle- and high-school sex education courses and correct any omissions.
One New Jersey sex educator told me that sexting is not specifically mentioned in the 2009 version of the Core Curriculum Standards, which guides the development of sex and family life education programs for all districts. She thinks a savvy teacher could find a rationale for teaching about it within the relationship strand, but that little is done to ensure that a topic like sexting is actually covered in classrooms anyway.
If the Senate passes this bill and Governor Christie signs it, then students will be penalized for sexting when they’ve been ignorant of its consequences since they haven’t learned about it in sex ed class. This doesn’t seem fair to me.
The bill passed by the Assembly needs additional language requiring that the department of education amend the Core Curriculum Standards to specifically say that sexting should be taught and that money should be allotted to train teachers about this and other aspects of technology that are such a part of teens’ lives.
Perhaps more students should be involved with adults in the development of sex education content, too. I recently read a couple of articles about sexting in Sex, Etc., our magazine and website written by teens for teens. The teen writers understood that sexting had legal pitfalls, but they saw texting in general as a generational step forward from their parents’ telephonic era. Properly used, they say, the new technology brings accurate information to them in a second, and it does not involve a difficult or embarrassing talk with a parent or waiting until next year, when the only sex education course is offered in school. I can’t argue against this point.
One teen writer made a point that I’d never considered: talking about sexual desires over a computer or phone eliminates the risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or becoming pregnant. (The writer understood it was not responsible to send nude or semi-nude photographs.) These articles made me realize that a debate about the pros and cons of sexting would lead to a valuable classroom discussion.
If legislators let educators and teens focus on preventing sexting, then perhaps teens will make smarter decisions, and we won’t have new laws to implement.
Education, after all, is an alliance between students, parents, educators, and policymakers. Teens are not always wrong. Teachers and legislators need to meet them more than halfway and offer as much assistance as possible—not just punishment.
Let a deeper discussion about sexting begin.