ACTION NEEDED: Tell Your Senator Not to Pass Bill Mandating 15-Year Prison Sentence for Teen Sexters

In an effort to protect our children, the US House of Representatives passed a law mandating a 15-year minimum sentence for teens who sext.

That’s not making our kids safer. It’s the opposite.

Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (the inspiration for Mean Girls) and many other wise books, runs a blog and movement called Cultures of Dignity, and this month it explains why the bill is terrible and what we can do about it:

FLIRTING OR FELONY?

Teens, sex, and social media. It’s a combination that understandably makes many adults really anxious. Unfortunately, when adults get anxious their reactions are often counterproductive to addressing the problem they’re trying to solve. Consider the following: should an 8th grade girl who sends a topless picture to a guy she has a crush on have to serve prison time? Should a boy who sends a picture of his genitals to his friend as a joke be registered as a sex offender?

HR 1761 has just passed the House and is now in the Senate: Its purpose is to “amend title 18, United States Code, to criminalize the knowing consent of the visual depiction, or live transmission, of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, and for other purposes.” Under the law, the defendant must serve a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison, even if the attempt wasn’t completed, and be placed on the sex offenders registry for life.

The bill is intended to stop child pornography. Obviously a good thing. But this bill treats a child molester who takes, solicits, or has possession of a sexually inappropriate picture of a minor the same as a fifteen year old girl who sends a picture of herself in her bra and underwear to her crush.

Our job at Cultures of Dignity is to understand the experiences of young people and give them the best tools to navigate their social lives with their dignity intact. Simultaneously, we hold adults accountable to be credible authority figures and stewards of young people’s emotional and physical well-being.

This bill is a perfect example of an adult’s good intention gone sideways.

As Rep. Mike Johnson (LA), the legislator who drafted the law, puts it, “The Protection Against Child Exploitation Act is a common-sense step to better protect our children from depraved sexual predators.”

The vast majority of teens are not depraved sexual predators. They are young people coming into their sexuality in a time where they have the means to display that sexuality publicly. So whether we like it or not, it’s not uncommon for young people to send sexually “inappropriate” pictures to their peers. It’s not unusual for a boy to send a picture of his genitals to a friend for no “real” reason. And it’s really not unusual for young people to ask each other for sexy pictures. 

We understand why adults don’t want young people sending these kinds of pictures but it’s dangerous and unethical for lawmakers to write and pass laws that can’t tell the difference between a sexual predator and a young person who is going through adolescence.  

What’s even more frustrating is that Congress rejected Rep. Jackson Lee proposed amendment to ensure minors are not punished as sex offenders.

Wiseman asks adults AND teens to write to their senators and ask them to vote no on this bill.

I’m asking you the same.

Click here to find your senators’ email and snail mail addresses. That’s what I just did and here’s what i wrote:

Dear Senator: Please vote NO on bill HR 1761. It will treat teen sexters like child pornographers and subject them to a 15 year mandatory MINIMUM. A high school kid who sexts his friend at 14 would not come out again till he’s 29. That’s insane. Rather than protecting kids, it will make criminals out of many normal, horny young people. Thanks for your consideration.

Spread the word. The future you save could be your own child’s. – L.

.

U R cute + now I am a felon.

.

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33 Responses to ACTION NEEDED: Tell Your Senator Not to Pass Bill Mandating 15-Year Prison Sentence for Teen Sexters

  1. SKL July 19, 2017 at 9:36 am #

    Is this the same issue discussed about a month ago? If so, the law isn’t about teen sexters. I think it would make more sense to ask them to push for an amendment to specifically exclude teen sexters. Or to say they can’t vote for the child porn amendment because it doesn’t do enough to protect teen sexters.

  2. Dienne July 19, 2017 at 10:25 am #

    I’m confused. Isn’t it already a crime to knowingly take or send sexually explicit pictures of a minor? So is this law only adding the mandatory minimum sentence? And in any case, shouldn’t this be a state issue?

  3. Archimedes July 19, 2017 at 10:32 am #

    SKL,

    It’s towards the bottom and easy to miss, but in the text it says Rep. Jackson Lee proposed just such an amendment, and the rest of the HoR refused to add it.

    That would be good, but I’d like to see some protection for those that receive but don’t solicit too. I used to tutor and had the occasional girl try and run her hand up my leg. I could easily see one getting a phone number from their parents and sending a naked picture, unwanted.

    It’s the challenge between making a system inflexible, which is unjust, and flexible, which can be just as unjust.

    Unfortunately, sometimes there are no perfect answers.

  4. Melissa July 19, 2017 at 10:32 am #

    Text RESIST to 50409 to have faxes sent via text to your Senators!

  5. Andrew Jones July 19, 2017 at 10:38 am #

    What makes it more confusing, it doesn’t distinguish between a minor willingly sending pictures of themselves, versus someone spreading pictures of someone else. Also, in some US states, these same teens could legally consent to actual *sex*, but could be jailed because they shared a sexy picture, which makes no sense whatsoever. So, as usual, a law “to protect the children” which people don’t want to be seen to be against, will end up *hurting* children if passed.

    Here in Canada we had a similar problem, when they were writing our most recent anti-child porn laws because originally, they wanted any and all depictions of sex with a minor to be considered child porn, and a federal offense, until someone pointed out that a girl writing in her diary about either a) what she imagines doing with her boyfriend (over age of consent, but not adult) or b) what she *did* with her boyfriend would be considered child porn if anyone else got their hands on it, at which point they became criminals not for engaging or thinking of sex (both legal in this case) but because they wrote about it. They did amend the law somewhat to try avoid that situation.

    Once again, one can see the original colonial origins of the USA seeping through – religious nuts so annoying they were kicked out of their home countries, who banned Christmas, and who thought that if something was fun, it must be the work of Satan. As a result, anything to do with sex is bad and evil and must be punished.

  6. Jason Kostrzewa July 19, 2017 at 11:43 am #

    Sexting should not be a crime.

  7. Nancy July 19, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    The only thing is, the link directs you to senators in the senate. Surely if this is in the house it should be directed to state representatives?

  8. Dienne July 19, 2017 at 11:57 am #

    Nancy – the bill has already passed the House. Sure, you could send an email asking “what the hell were you thinking???”, but in order to stop this bill, it’s up to the Senate now.

  9. Theresa Hall July 19, 2017 at 12:09 pm #

    Don’t we have enough prisoners. The drug war gets quite a few of them. Do we really need more?

  10. Eric S July 19, 2017 at 1:41 pm #

    Not to get too political about this, but there is a bigger picture at play with these incarcerations. End all be all, it’s about $$$.

    Obama, wanted to close down a number of privatized prisons. Due to many unnecessary incarcerations. We have to remember, the more these private prisons are filled, the more money people involve make. There have been reports that children as young as 10 being incarcerated. Or people charged with first time possession of low level drugs (ie. pot), are being treated and jailed just like an actual drug dealer of hard drugs would be.

    Sessions wants to increase the number of private prisons. He also wants to give local law enforcement more free reign on arrests and charges. No accountability, as long as they can make arrests and lead to convictions. He also wants to reinstate and increase the cast of the net for Asset Forfeiture. If you aren’t aware of what that is, that is the law were cops can detain you and seize your assets/property (never to get it back), even if you weren’t charged with an actual offense. A “suspicion” is all that is required. And if you were found to be not guilty, they don’t have to give back your property. This is a billion dollar industry for the law enforcement.

    So it doesn’t surprise me that they are trying to pass this bill. Not about the kids, or even the act of them sharing intimate photos. It’s about capitalizing on a situation to make $$$. Not much different from companies promoting fear to sell their products.

  11. John B. July 19, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

    @Andrew:

    I wouldn’t necessarily blame this all on “religious nuts”. Believe you me, there are plenty of liberal people, who are anything but religious, but go absolutely nuts when “teenagers and sex” are mentioned in the same sentence and then push for unreasonable laws and penalties when violations occur.

  12. James Pollock July 19, 2017 at 1:54 pm #

    “That would be good, but I’d like to see some protection for those that receive but don’t solicit ”

    The federal child porn statute already has some protection for people receive child porn they didn’t ask for, (although with conditions that must be met, to keep people who DID request or go looking for it, and got/found it, from wriggling out of it.)

  13. Danp July 19, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

    Congress at work:
    I emailed my House rep when this bill was in the house last month. My congressperson’s legislative director actually reached out, to try to explain the intent to me.
    There was a case decided in the Fourth Circuit (I looked it up. You can find it here https://casetext.com/case/united-states-v-palomino-coronado)
    In this case, the child abuser’s conviction under the Production of Child Pornography statute was tossed out, because the government had not proven that the 19-y-o had the “purpose” to create child porn simply by presenting the single deleted photo he took of himself molesting the 7-y-o girl who lived next door.

    According to my rep’s legislative director, the bill is meant to close that loophole where a molester can plead guilty to the abuse, but argue he shouldn’t be a federal felon because he didn’t specifically intend to produce sexual depictions of a minor.
    It’s a weird case. Other courts have considered similar arguments by similar defendants and have declined to extend it beyond the specific circumstances of Palomino’s behavior. And it looks to be a weird one-off case.

    This bill doesn’t significantly expand the scope of behavior that’s already prohibited.
    Here’s the current statute. All the situations Lenore describes could already be punished under current law: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2251

    I therefore think this post is unnecessarily alarmist.

  14. Librarymomma July 19, 2017 at 2:24 pm #

    Okay, I just emailed my senators, who will probably vote for this bill anyway. One is considered “tough on crime” and the other, I don’t know, but I hope common sense will prevail (doubtful).

    As the mother of a teenage boy who so far doesn’t have a smartphone, I now have one more thing to add to my list of worries as he’ll probably get a smartphone in the next year or two (if I had my way, it would be much longer).

  15. Eric S July 19, 2017 at 2:29 pm #

    @Danp: Is that an interpretation by the courts or prosecutor, or is it actually written definitively? Where there is no room for wiggle room one way or the other. Many laws are open to interpretation. Depending on how it’s spun, determines whether it’s a justified conviction, or wrongful acquittal (or vice versa). This bill like any other bill needs to go through a fine tooth comb. Not passed just because it sounds “good”.

  16. Eric S July 19, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    @Librarymomma: Tell him the truth. And the consequences of poor decision making when it comes to sharing explicit videos and pics. The rest would be up to him. And remember, if you forcibly prevent teens from doing something, they are much more inclined to do it…behind your back. You give them a choice, it forces them to think of the consequences you just laid out. Maybe even add a little bit of fear, based on truth. That you and your husband won’t be able to help him (as much as you want to be able to) if he lands himself in that situation. When you outline consequences, and leave it up to them, they are more inclined to think things through more than if you didn’t. They are going to do what they are going to do, they are teens. You just have to give them all the necessary information they need.

    That’s what my parents did for me and my siblings. Same with my cousins. Because we were allowed more leeway, we took less advantage of it. Got into less trouble. Became more street smart.

  17. Red July 19, 2017 at 3:05 pm #

    @Eric S: yes, I think all we can do here is tell our teens (and soon-to-be-teens) the truth. Tell them about the older teens (18+) who get in legal trouble because they are in relationships with other high schoolers when they pass that “magic” age of 18. Tell them about teens who get into trouble for sending naked pictures to one another. Tell them about teens who get in legal trouble for simply receiving pictures. Admit to them that it’s unfair, but it’s the way the laws are written now.

  18. Aimee July 19, 2017 at 3:19 pm #

    Done. Written and sent.

    Took the time to also remind my Republican senator of what we OUGHT to be spending our time and effort on, rather than criminalizing foolish-but-normal teen behavior.

  19. James Pollock July 19, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

    “This bill doesn’t significantly expand the scope of behavior that’s already prohibited.”

    My chief complaint is that the government uses a VERY expansive definition of “sexually explicit conduct” to include a whole bunch of things that are not actually sexually explicit. A person who is streaking through a crowd is not having sex, but photos of a person streaking can still fall under the government’s definition of “sexually explicit conduct”.

    The justification for taking child pornography out of the umbrella of the first amendment is that you can’t make child porn without harming children. Then we go back and define a lot of things that don’t involve harming children to be “child pornography”.

    My illustration goes like this. My state allows 16-year-olds to marry. They have to get a parent or a judge to sign off on it first, but they CAN marry. Once married, they CAN have fully-state-sanctioned sex. BUT if they photograph their fully-state-sanctioned sex, THEN they are horrible criminals who deserve extended prison time. Because, um… think of the children?

    One argument put forth is “if we tell the kids that sex and sexuality is no big deal, they’ll get involved in sex and sex-adjacent behavior ‘too young’ or ‘before they’re ready’, with unforeseen, unwanted long-term effects… pregnancy and STI and so on. Therefore, sexting MUST be stamped out, and stamped out hard.” I believe that the best answer is to properly inform the young’uns and trust their judgment. Some will make mistakes, but then again, it’s not like saying “no sex until you’re 18!” works better than “no sex until you’re married!” at preventing pregnancy or STI infection in underage, unmarried individuals.

    I mean, if an underage woman takes naked pictures of herself of her own volition, it’s hard to see a victim, regardless of the purpose. If she then chooses to share those pictures, with the intention of causing lustful thinking on the part of the recipient (thus meeting the definition of “pornography”), the victim is…. still unclear. If she gives the recipient permission to share those images with friends (“pictures or it didn’t happen”), still no victim. (note: I’m not a sexist, all variations of gender in the sender and recipient are equally valid… but young women are more like to ask and young men are more likely to be asking.) Nor do I think it significant if the recipient has asked for them (in a non-coercive way) or if the person who wants the images is the one who actually performs the tasks necessary to capture them, if the process is voluntary, and the degree of sharing of the images is equally voluntary.

    So, if A convinces B to take naked pictures, and then shares them without B’s consent, that’s not OK. If A convinces B to take naked pictures, but uses coercion, that’s not OK. If B is not actually capable of giving meaningful consent, that’s not OK. If B is doing something that is illegal in and of itself, then punishing A for photographing it might be reasonable (this is tougher. Is A part of the illegality, or not? Imagine an investigative reporter smuggling a hidden camera in to a secret gambling den, who then discovers that not only do people gamble illegally, but they also have underage prostitutes. Is the reporter a criminal for recording naked 17-year-olds involved in prostitution?

    Also, I would not exempt minors from child pornography statutes. A 17-year-old taking photos of a 12-year-old having sex is just as guilty of producing child pornography as a 19-year-old or a 52-year-old is.

    Finally, as to the palomino-Coronado case referenced above, I think the appeals court got it right. The guy raped a 7 year old. He took, and deleted, a photo of the rape. Charge him with rape of a child, convict him, and put him in prison for raping a child. That’s the offense here. If he takes pictures and saves them? Maybe go after him for possession of child porn. If he shares it with other people, wither for money or to trade for other things, then definitely nail him for distribution of child porn on top of the rape charge. But… he didn’t do do either of those things, so don’t charge him with doing those things.

  20. LynnJay July 19, 2017 at 4:25 pm #

    I’ve contacted my senators, confirmed that my House Rep voted NO on the House bill. (Thank you, Suzanne Bonamici), and also commented on other senators and representatives FB pages and blogs.

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention! We should all be outraged and fearful of the repercussions.

  21. James Pollock July 19, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

    “Took the time to also remind my Republican senator of what we OUGHT to be spending our time and effort on, rather than criminalizing foolish-but-normal teen behavior.”

    [political snideness follows]
    The Republicans in Congress got so used to not doing anything while Obama was President, they forgot how to do anything… they only know how to be against things. That’s why they can’t get anything done, even though they only control three of the three branches of the federal government.

    The party that put Mitch McConnell in charge of ANYTHING deserves the results it gets. Er, doesn’t get.

    In my lifetime, Presidential Republicans have gone from “there’s a bear in the woods…” to “meet my good friend, the bear. The bear didn’t have anything at all to do with getting me elected, and anything you hear about me or my campaign staff working with the bear are totally fake news. Sad! Hey, everybody, look! I’m driving a fire truck!”

    [end political snideness]

  22. Cathy July 19, 2017 at 4:55 pm #

    No one should go to prison young or old for stupidity and doing things like this that are growing up and doing things yo shouldn’t do.

    Stop it all.

  23. David N. Brown July 19, 2017 at 5:02 pm #

    I suspect that an “unintended” consequence of the law will be disproportionate prosecution of LGBT teens. I’ve seen complaints of this bias in prostitution laws. This is apparently what inspired California to pass a law stipulating that no minors should be arrested or prosecuted. Naturally, moral-panicmongers immediately screamed that the state had “legalized” child prostitution.

  24. Theresa Hall July 19, 2017 at 5:37 pm #

    It not like it’s easy to find kids that haven’t done anything dumb and maybe harmless. With zero tolerance for the kids or teachers not wanting to deal with the kids school cops end up sending them to jail. At this rate they will be more kids in jail than school. Do we really need another excuse to put more kids into jail?.

  25. Donald July 19, 2017 at 7:31 pm #

    The United States Constitution was originally printed on four pages of parchment and consisted of 4,543 words, unamended. In modern pages, the Constitution and all its amendments take up about 15 pages.

    Times have changed and so have language. Today things are written in legalese. It would take 30 pages just to write a simple law such as, ‘Don’t let your pet shit on the grass in a public park’. Unfortunately, one of the ‘benefits’ of this complication is that it’s great for grandstanding. Politicians can capitalise on confusion and sell it as anything they want.

  26. sexhysteria July 20, 2017 at 1:54 am #

    What does an exposed breast have to do with “sexually explicit conduct”? We might as well demand that all females over the age of eight wear a hijab.

  27. Kimberly Albertson July 20, 2017 at 3:00 am #

    David N. Brown — That’s not entirely true. CA made the shift from criminalizing prostitution among minors because they finally realized that the majority of minors who were being arrested/charged/sentenced for prostitution were victims themselves — whether they were victims of whatever put them on the streets in the first place or the victims of predatory adults. Unfortunately, a large percentage of homeless youth are from the LGBTQ community. I don’t know if CA was the first state to do this, but I do know that other states are following suit.

    As a side note: this shift from perpetrator to victim is one reason the number of child sex trafficking incidences have gone up. Not because it’s actually happening more, but because we are starting to redefine what makes a victim.

  28. Invader July 20, 2017 at 8:51 am #

    Or prisons are already overcrowded why add to that? Furthermore when they do get out, who will hire them? Where will they live:? Are we really willing to destroy any potential future they might have, over a something that was done without thinking?

  29. John B. July 20, 2017 at 12:51 pm #

    Well I contacted both Senators Richard Shelby and Luther Strange of Alabama and told them to vote NO on this bill with reasons I felt it was a horrible idea. So this is the response I received from Senator Strange:

    “Dear Mr. ———

    Thank you for contacting me about the Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017 (H.R. 1761). I appreciate hearing from you on this issue.

    Representative Mike Johnson introduced H.R. 1761 on March 28, 2017. This bill would create criminal penalties for individuals who knowingly provide consent for the sexual exploitation of minors, knowingly assist in the sexual exploitation of minors, or produce child pornography.

    On May 25, 2017, H.R. 1761 passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 368-51. The bill is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee. I do not serve on that committee, but if this bill comes to the Senate floor for debate and a vote, I will keep your views in mind.

    It is an honor to serve the people of Alabama in Washington, Please contact me about other issues of importance to you.

    Sincerely,

    Luther Strange
    United States Senator”

    The letter above looked like a form letter to me and didn’t seem personal. But the way the letter read, it looks like a good bill. I mean, who wouldn’t want to penalize people for providing “consent for the sexual exploitation of minors” or those who “knowingly assist in the sexual exploitation of minors, or produce child pornography.”? But my question is, don’t we already have laws on the books that would penalize people for violating all of the above? So why do we need additional laws and penalties? Notice also that he conveniently left out the part about minors themselves being severely penalized.

    Herein lies the problem. The general public reads this law and thinks it is the greatest thing since sliced bread thinking it would punish old perverts from stalking and sexually molesting their kids BUT from reading the way Senator Strange described it, parents would not realize it is THEIR teenage kids who could be the ones being punished for a typical teenage prank and since a description of the criminal penalties (mandatory 15 year prison sentence and lifetime on the SOR) is also left out in his dialogue above, parents would not realize what would be in store for their teenage son or daughter who violated this law!

    Unfortunately, since this bill passed the House with an overwhelming majority vote of 368-51, I cannot see how it would not get through the Senate. Like anything, I think people need to read the fine print and regarding Senator Strange “keeping my views in mind” if the bill reached the Senate floor, I’m certainly not holding my breath. 🙁

  30. Papilio July 20, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

    “Tell Your Senator Not to Pass Bill Mandating 15-Year Prison Sentence for Teen Sexters”

    …I’m going to read that again slowly until I can wrap my mind around it…

  31. David N. Brown July 20, 2017 at 7:46 pm #

    @Kimberley: The perception of women in prostitution as “victims”, at least of poverty, is a social convention that was never really under threat. Extending it to males has been difficult even without the additional taboos against homosexuality.

  32. Richard Bartel July 23, 2017 at 9:35 pm #

    Alarmist? These right wing religious fanatics, who can’t bear that everyone past puberty engages in sex, must be stopped in their tracks, including the secretive efforts of Sessions and Pence (who’s wife is bizarre).

  33. Susan July 25, 2017 at 4:49 pm #

    I am really disheartened reading some of the comments here. Politicians and legislators for many decades (if not hundreds of years) have passed laws that have led to terrible unintended consequences. Among them have been Republicans and Democrats and members of political parties that no longer exist. A great deal of legislation that “sounds good” and usually is intended for good, ends up being harmful to at least some people.

    When I read the article, I saw a plea to step in and inform our Senators of the negative potential of this bill. But the comments turned it into a Republican/Christian/conservative bashing session – for goodness sakes, someone insulted Mike Pence’s wife!

    If we have reached the point that the only way we view laws is by who proposes them and we insult “the other team,” rather than acknowledging flaws in the system and bipartisan mistakes, I fear that we will be a country incapable of correcting our course when needed. How sad that instead of uniting behind an idea on a website that I assume stands for principles that most of the readers support this turned into an opportunity to hate.