Should teen sexting in Virginia be considered child pornography?

In Virginia, teens who engage in sexting can be charged with producing, possessing and distributing child pornography.

In recent years as cell phones and other mobile devices have been embraced by the public, teens here in Manassas and elsewhere began using them as a way to attract boyfriends or girlfriends. No one knows where or when it started but soon teens began taking nude photos of themselves and sending those images to others via text or posting them on a website. The new behavior is commonly referred to as sexting.

According to The Atlantic, the Louisa County Sheriff's Office was brought to the attention of sexting after the mother of a teen girl found her daughter's nude photo on an Instagram site. As the officers investigated the situation, they soon learned that it was the girls creating these images of themselves and that it was a widespread trend at the local high school and throughout the state. Furthermore, what the teens didn't realize and didn't seem to care about, was the fact that technically, they were breaking the law.

Virginia's child pornography law

Virginia has passed laws making it illegal to produce, possess, distribute or sell sexually explicit images of children. The charges and/or penalties if convicted include the following:

  • Possession of child pornography - a Class 6 felony charge
  • Reproduction or distribution of child pornography - felony charge which comes with prison sentence of 5-20 years.
  • Production of child pornography - felony charge which comes with a prison sentence of 1-30 years, determined by the age of the minor and the age of the person producing the child pornography.

The law also prohibits someone from creating a website where child pornography can be purchased or sold. Exceptions to the law exist for images made by doctors, law enforcement officers and other organizations where the images are for scientific purchases or in the course of performing professional duties.

Separate law for teens?

The current law is aimed at adults or those who coerce a minor into posing for an explicit photo. However, with sexting, teens are actively creating images of themselves and then sharing them. Some have questioned whether it's fair to charge a teenager with a felony sex offense since there appears to be no real victim. Last year, the Daily Progress reported that the Virginia State Crime Commission was looking at the subject more seriously and considering several proposals.

One of the proposals was to create a separate law for sexting teens where they would be charged with a misdemeanor offense but this was not acceptable for everyone since sexting is consensual. Another idea was to put a provision on the charge that could be removed if the teen underwent education on the behavior.

However, until further decisions are made, law enforcement agencies are given discretion when choosing what actions should be taken. Given the sensitivity of the issue and the long-term repercussions that may follow a teen as they seek higher education, a career or other pursuits, it is a good idea for them and their parents to obtain legal counsel.

Keywords: sexting, sex crime, Internet crime, child pornography