Women

04.14.13

Sexting Suicides: New Laws Needed

After a spate of suicides over alleged rape photos circulated online, the law must separate out consensual and malicious sexting.

This week we’ve been inundated with the sad, sad stories of Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott, two teens who killed themselves—Parsons, earlier this week; Pott, seven months ago—after photos of alleged sexual attacks on the girls circulated online. While Canada is calling Parsons’ suicide its “Steubenville,” news came from San Jose, CA that police had finally arrested three 16-year-old boys in connection with the Pott case.

Writing for Slate, Emily Bazelon tries to get at the thorny problems that converge in these cases: of teen sexting, of evidence in rape allegations—“especially among people who know each other and when drinking or drugs are involved”—and of the current laws on the books to deal with perpetrators. As she notes, “the circulation of the compromising photos…created a trail of digital evidence. In light of that, we should have a clear way to bring charges against the instigators—a way that recognizes that the boys involved were teenagers, not adults.”

Bazelon argues that, in some instances, charging alleged perpetrators with child pornography laws may not be the best option: “We should have laws that offer a middle ground between no charges at all and heavy prison sentences with a lifetime on the sex-offender register. We should have laws that specifically and deliberately address teen sexting” and that separate out consensual sexting from instances involving malicious intent. The cases of Parsons and Pott—and of the teen in Steubenville—are extreme, and therefore need to be handled differently from those of girls (and boys) willingly sending naughty selfies to their paramours. They need, as Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted while speaking about Parsons’ death, to be called by a different name—“violent criminal activity”—and treated as such.