The Sexting Bill: Teen Victims of Privacy Violations Now Protected in Colorado

Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

Sexting--sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photos, or images via text message--is a practice many teens engage in consensually. Approximately one third of 16 and 17 year olds sext, yet many do not understand the potential consequences of this behavior. As adults consider how best to protect teens, sexting continues to spark controversy among parents, legislators, and educators alike.

A Challenging Issue

What makes the issue of sexting challenging is locating the balance between helping teens understand the risks of sexting without shaming teens who use this medium to explore their sexuality. Even more challenging is ensuring victims of abusive sexting are not held accountable for the actions of their abuser. Parents and educators continue to struggle in finding a middle ground wherein teens are free to express themselves but are also free from harm.

Teen Sexters Charged as Child Pornographers

Up until this year, Colorado’s only legal remedy for teens engaging in sexting behaviors was to charge them, or threaten to charge them, with a felony: distribution of child pornography. There was little, if any, differentiation between sexting occurring consensually among teens exploring their sexuality and sexting as a means of abuse and coercion.

According to Amy Hasinoff, University of Colorado assistant professor and author of Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent:

We need laws that are narrowly focused on privacy violations. The problem with child pornography laws around the country is that we're charging victims and perpetrators with the same types of crimes. If someone who experiences a privacy violation can be charged with the same crime as the perpetrator, the victim is unlikely to report that harm. All too often, victims of sexual violations like this are blamed and shamed, which makes the harm even worse.

To address this concern, Rep. Pete Lee (D-El Paso District 18) introduced HB17-1302 this legislative season. The Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault and a broad coalition of advocacy and law enforcement partners including the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, One Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center and Colorado Youth Matter supported the bill.

HB17-1302 created a misdemeanor crime and felony carve out for juvenile victims of privacy violations and consensual sexters. In other words, thanks to the bill, victims and consensual sexters cannot be criminally charged and potentially placed on the sex offender registry.

A Legislative Solution

The final version of the bill, a compromise between Representative Lee’s and a competing bill put forward by the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, does the following:

  • holds perpetrators of abusive sexting accountable via two levels of misdemeanor (depending on the circumstances of the sexting situation)

  • holds individuals accountable who forward to others the explicit images they receive

  • does not criminally penalize victims of abuse, consensual sexters, and recipients of unwanted explicit images who delete the images within 72 hours.

For Jennifer Eyl, Esq., director of Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center’s domestic violence program, the final bill “is a big improvement over the previous law” because it largely prevents the re-traumatization of victims. It also goes a long way to acknowledge sexting is sometimes consensual, and under certain circumstances, that’s okay.

Educate Yourself and Your Kids

There are lots of layers to this bill, broads, too numerous to outline here. I encourage you to take a look--you can read the full Juvenile Sexting Crime bill on the Colorado Legislature’s website--especially if you are a teen or have teenaged kids.

And remember, kids are likely going to participate in sexting. The key is to determine when it is consensual and when it is not. Talk to your teens about their exploration of healthy sexuality. Use the right names for your kid’s body parts. Don’t shy away from having open, honest, non-judgmental discussions.

 

Check out this PSA from the UK. It's a video from the National Crime Agency's child protection program and offers insight for parents in talking to kids about sex and social media. 

 

Wagging fingers disapprovingly and telling teens not to sext does not address the issue, nor does charging teens with a felony crime if they are found sexting. Thankfully, the new sexting bill does a better job of finding balance when it comes to this topic.