Teen bodies and teen sex are like psychological napalm triggering the worst-case-scenario meltdowns of parents, lawmakers, and prosecutors across the country. Certainly, having a sizeable chunk of the population besieged with explosive hormones, sporting a still-developing prefrontal cortex, cell phones, and an astounding ability to do dumb shit is a lot for any society to contend with. Yet somehow, even though we are a country often defined by our ingenuity, the best possible solution we’ve been able to conjure up to this ancient problem of young people doing stupid, slutty things with their crotches is to prosecute them like pederasts and felons.
Take the case of Hunter Osborn in Mesa, Arizona. The young football player, eighteen at the time, decided to pull a prank during the team’s photo session for the school’s yearbook. Dressed in his football uniform, Osborn put the tip of his penis above the waistband of his pants, resulting in 3,400 copies of the yearbook being issued to students that commemorated their school year with a tiny image of Osborn’s dong. The school called the cops, and Osborn has been charged with sixty-nine counts of indecent exposure by Mesa police; one count for each student who was in the photo. He’s also been charged with one count of furnishing harmful items to minors, a class four felony.
Then there’s the “legal netherworld” of teen sexting, as one legal pundit described it. Last year in North Carolina, police were investigating charges of statutory rape among high school students. The police pulled sixteen-year-old Cormega Copening’s cell phone records and found nude photos of Copening and his girlfriend, also sixteen, that the two had sent to each other.
In North Carolina, you are considered an adult at sixteen years old but it’s illegal to receive or disseminate sexually explicit texts, photos, or videos if you are under the age of eighteen. Prosecutors ended up charging Copening with five felony counts of sexually exploiting a minor, the minor being (in four cases) himself. Two charges were for taking naked pictures of himself, two more were for sending those pictures to his inamorata, and one count was for possessing a naked picture of his girlfriend. The girlfriend, Brianna Denson, was charged with two felony counts of exploiting a minor (again, the minor being herself): one for taking a naked picture of herself and a second count for sending it to her boyfriend. The case is ongoing.
People like to condemn Americans for being puritanical about sex, which I’ve always found hard to agree with, given that almost every person I know has participated in a threesome—nevertheless when laws that were created to protect children from sexual exploitation are used to punish teenagers for simply being sexual, the critique of persistent Puritan mores in American culture certainly becomes valid.
Neither prosecutors nor proselytizing are a viable solution because teen sex is so powerful, immutable, and unwavering that it defies the laws of both god and man.
However, what seems much more American about this problem is not so much us getting our ancestral pilgrim panties in a twist about teen sex, but rather our insistence that somebody should do something. It’s a good joke that ran through The Simpsons plot lines for years: the Reverend Lovejoy’s priggish wife would shriek out to the citizens of Springfield during any minor crisis, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!” Our “somebody” is laughably—tragically—the criminal justice system, the secular replacement for the once-preferred antidote of religion.
Needless to say, neither prosecutors nor proselytizing are a viable solution because teen sex is so powerful, immutable, and unwavering that it defies the laws of both god and man.
What’s more, the teens turn out to be doing a pretty good job of policing themselves these days: teen pregnancy has plummeted by 40 percent since 2006, with sharp declines in both black and Hispanic communities. Doctors point to girls having access to long term birth control (like IUDs), the use of the morning after pill, and, surprisingly, teens actually waiting a little longer to have sex, typically after age seventeen.
This is the result of a great social experiment with teens: be honest with them about their bodies and their sexuality. While there are still parts of the country that rely on abstinence-only education to suppress the manic sexuality of the young, by and large American culture has shifted enough to allow discussion of the human body, birth control, sexuality, and consent into classrooms and families. So far it seems to pay off to let teen sexuality work itself out with some safety precautions set up along the way.
When you think about it, sexting is, like, the safest sex you can have. And while it’s unsettling to think that had some of us been born a decade or two later then the dumb things we did with our boobs and bits could have been uploaded, tagged, texted, and tweeted, the notion that this problem can be some how remedied by county prosecutors is more profoundly disturbing (especially when it comes to a dumb dick prank). Going forward it will likely be impossible to uncouple teen sex from technology, and the attempt to cleave the two through the courts will only serve to shame kids who were just trying to play their 2.0 version of grab-ass.
Of course, teen sexting and nude selfies can become the stuff of real nightmares when they are used without a teen’s consent in the form of bullying or extortion; then, obviously, there should be laws on the books to protect children from harm. In general though, what teens really need protection from is not other teens or even sex, but from the adults who attempt to either suppress teen sexuality or tap into it and exploit it for their own pleasure or seedy purposes. Teen sexuality—for all its clumsiness, stupidity, impulsivity—is sacred. While a dong plopped into a high school yearbook spread is juvenile and emailing a nude selfie to your homecoming date is short-sighted, these are simply youthful expressions of sex that only become criminal when adults get in the way, and their draconian reprimands end up being far more abusive and humiliating to children than the original act.