Sunday, July 10, 2011

Creating a "sexting" typology

Sexting typology: Crimes Against Children Research Center.

The Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC) recently conducted a survey of 550 cases of “sexting” obtained from a national survey of law enforcement agencies. To promote an objective discussion of the problem of sexting and to develop strategies to minimize the dangers and harm related to sexting the researchers created a typology. The aim of the typology is to show the diversity of  sexting incidents and organize sexting behaviors in a way that helps, school officials, parents, law enforcement and other community-based organizations and leaders to respond effectively to needs of teens who engage in sexting.

What is sexting?
The term sexting has been used in a wide range of  media and by researchers to refer to sexual communications with content that includes sexually explicit pictures and text messages, typically sent using cell phones and other electronic media. Due to the fact the term has been used in a variety of ways (most recently in "Weiner-Gate"), the researchers at CACRC selected an alternative term: "youth-produced sexual images." The CACRC defines youth-produced sexual images as pictures created by minors (age 17 or younger) that depict minors in a manner that could be categorized as child pornography under applicable criminal statutes. The researchers include the sending of such images by any electronic technology, such as cell phone, WebCam, or digital camera.

What is child pornography?

Child pornography is broadly defined in the United States. Laws vary but are often modeled on federal statutes which define a child as anyone under 17 and child pornography as the "visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct." Sexually explicit conduct includes intercourse, oral sex, bestiality, and masturbation as well as "lascivious exhibition of the genitals." The US Supreme Court has defined "lascivious exhibition" to include images that focus on the genitals even of clothed children.

How many minors have created youth-produced sexual images?
Several studies have suggested sexting is widespread among teens, but the actual number of teens that make and send sexual images is unclear. One widely cited study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 20% of teens had created sexual images of themselves. Due to methodological problems with this study, the 20% figure reported is considered to be exaggerated. A better designed study by the Pew Research Center, using a nationally representative sample of youth ages 12 to 17, estimated that only 4% of youth had created and sent images and texts of a sexual nature. The Pew research suggests that creating such images is not yet a statistically normative behavior among teens.

Typology described
The researchers at the CACRC determined that the 550 cases studied could be divided into two categories: aggravated and experimental. Aggravated incidents involved criminal or abusive behaviors beyond the creation, sending, or possession of youth-produced sexual images. These additional behaviors included 1) adults soliciting sexual images from minors, other instances of minors sending images to adults, or other illegal adult involvement or 2) criminal or abusive behavior by minors, such as sexual abuse of another youth, extortion, deception, threats, malicious conduct arising from interpersonal conflicts and the creation and sending of images without the knowledge or against the will of the minors who were pictured.

In experimental incidents youth created and sent sexual images without any criminal elements. That is, there was no criminal behavior beyond the creation and sending of images, no apparent malice and no lack of willing participation by the youths pictured. Generally speaking, in these experimental episodes, youth took pictures of themselves to send to an established boy or girlfriend, to create romantic interest in another youth, or for attention seeking, or other reasons that did not involve elements of the aggravated cases. The researchers at that CACRC use the term experimental because these incidents, although they did not represent normative behavior, did appear to grow out of typical adolescent impulses to flirt, find romantic partners, and experiment with sex and get attention from peers.
The category that involved criminal abusive elements beyond the creation or sending or possession of youth-produced sexual images was conceptually divided by the researchers into two distinct sub-groups: adult involved cases that included sexual offending by adults and cases that involve youth only (no adults).

In most of the adult involved cases, adult offenders developed relationships with and seduced underage teenagers, in what were clearly criminal sex offenses even without the added element of youth-produced sexual images. Some of these adult offenders had face-to-face relationships with victims as family members, friends, relatives, or community members. In other cases, offenders used the Internet to meet victims. The youth-produced sexual images were generally solicited by the adult offenders.  The CACRC states that the cases involving adults are a distinct public policy concern because they typically include violations of criminal statutes prohibiting sex between adults and underage minors (i.e., statutory rape), in addition to child pornography charges
The other category of “aggravated” cases involves youth only. In these cases, adults did not solicit youth-produced sexual images or interact sexually with youth, either knowingly or unknowingly. The researchers determined there were two subgroups of youth only cases: 1) intent to harm and 2) reckless misuse. The key in distinguishing the “intent to harm” group from the “reckless misuse” group was in the intent of one of the youth participants. If a youth took or used images intending to harm, harass, or embarrass someone, then the incident was coded as “intent to harm.” This included retaliation for relationship breakup or actions directly taken to discredit someone's reputation. In the “reckless misuse” category, by contrast, pictures were taken or sent without the knowing or willing participation of the youth, but there was no apparent specific intent to cause harm. For example, in a frequent reckless misuse scenario, a youth who received images would show or forward the images to others without permission.

The researchers determined there were three subgroups in the “aggravated incidents, youth only” category: 1) cases that arose from interpersonal conflicts such as breakups and fights among friends 2) cases that involved criminal or abusive conduct such as blackmail, threats, or deception and 3) criminal sexual abuse or exploitation by juvenile offenders.
The “youth only-reckless misuse” group did not appear to involve any intent to harm despite the fact images were taken or sent without the participation or acknowledgment of the youth that was pictured. In these cases, pictures were taken or sent impulsively or recklessly and the victim may have been harmed as a result, but the intent was not malicious.

Within the experimental category the researchers determined there were three subcategories: 1) romantic episodes in which teens in an ongoing relationship made images for themselves or each other and these images were not intended to be distributed beyond the pair, 2) sexual attention seeking in which images were made and sent between or among youth who were not known to be romantic partners, or where one youth took pictures and sent them to multiple other youth or posted them online, presumably to draw sexual attention, and 3) there was a small subset of miscellaneous episodes which the researchers termed “other.” In these incidents youth created and often sent or posted youth-produced images for motives that seemed to involve some other intent that is often harder to determine.

Within the romantic subgroup of the experimental category, these incidents included couples in an ongoing romantic and sexual relationship who made images of each other. Within the sexual attention seeking subgroup these images were made and sent but not within an ongoing relationship. Often the intent was to interest someone in a relationship. In some cases, youth were offended by receiving sexual images. However, this reaction did not, by itself, put the episode in the aggravated category unless there was evidence the sender intended to offend or shock. If the sending of images was repeated when interest was not reciprocated, it could, however, become harassing and thus malicious and reclassified as aggravated. This scenario is rare according to the researchers. Most cases that involve malicious and harassing behavior arose from interpersonal conflicts which were not apparent in the cases categorized as experimental.

In the "other" experimental category the researchers stated there was a small number of cases that did not appear to have aggravating elements, like adult involvement, malicious motives or reckless misuse, but also did not fit into the romantic or attention seeking subtypes. These tended to involve either youth who took pictures of themselves for themselves or pre-adolescent children who did not appear to have sexual motives at all.

According to the researchers the most important implication of their analysis is the recognition that youth-produced images are made and disseminated under a wide range of circumstances. It is important, according to the researchers, that no single stereotype be permitted to dominate  popular thinking or influence public policy. Youth-produced sexual images are not all just "impulsive" acts or "romantic exchanges." Some aggravated “youth only” cases entailed a considerable amount of malice, such as youth who engaged in blackmail by threatening to send pictures that included sexual acts.
Cases that involved adults were also diverse. Some featured exploitative adults who tricked or seduced teens into sending graphic pictures, while others involved teens, often troubled, who initiated sexual interactions with adults. These were largely non-forcible crimes by adults who had illegal sexual contact with underage youth or what is generally referred to as statutory rate. Statutory rape is relatively prevalent crime although there is no information about how often it includes youth-produced sexual images. Certain characteristics histories of physical or sexual abuse, delinquency, depression, conflict with parents appear to increase the risk that youth will be drawn into statutory rape type relationships. It is important to keep in mind that crimes charged as statutory rape are diverse in their dynamics. The participation of  underage youth, while generally deemed voluntary, is a voluntary to varying degrees.

Young teens have little experience with intimate relationships. They often do not know how to negotiate with older partners about sexual activity. Some youth are pressured or coerced into sexual activity and some are intimidated into sexual activity. Nonetheless, many youth in these situations believe they are in love, are resistant to viewing a relationship as criminal, and feel considerable loyalty to the adult offender.

Even cases with only juveniles can be serious. As described above, there are cases featuring minors alone as producers and recipients of images that have very abusive and exploitative dimensions. Some youth used images to blackmail youth, some youth sexually abused and photographed younger or vulnerable youth and some used images to tarnish reputations. 

With this said, and researchers found many cases between juveniles that not appear to have any malicious or coercive behavior whatsoever. These included teens who took pictures of themselves with cell phones without disseminating or intending to disseminate them and teens in relationships who only share pictures with each other.There were also images of teens who were almost 18 and engaged in legal sexual activity.

The researchers recommend considering the developmental context of sexting behaviors. In evaluating the seriousness of episodes the researchers state it is important to consider the behavior of young people in the context of child development. The research supports the view that sexting is not simply teens acting "stupid” or “reckless.” Learning about romantic and sexual relationships is a key task of adolescent development in our culture, which provides mixed messages about appropriate sexual behavior. A large part of sexual development involves negotiating behaviors that are heavily weighted with moral, interpersonal and life course implications. How much intimacy do I want or should I allow? What kinds of activities will create bonds and trust? What is the meaning of various forms of sexual contact? 

Sending photographs have reputational consequences but so do most kinds of sexual interactions for teens. Teens have to try to balance reputational concerns against the sense of trust and safety that romantic attachments create. The sharing of sexual images, although risque’ in one social dimension, may also be a form of sexual sharing that actually involves comparative safety for teens. In contrast to face-to-face sexual encounters, cyber encounters can be engaged in outside the presence of the other person. As a result, these encounters can decrease feelings of immediate embarrassment and may be more manageable as the teen can control how she or he appears. Additionally, the pressure for additional sexual intimacy is not as intense and immediate as it is in face-to-face encounters and allows for teens to opt out at will simply by logging off or turning off their phone
In summary, sexting is a diverse activity that needs to be responded to with diverse approaches – from addressing clearly illegal actions through consensual sharing of images. Creating community based forums where teens and adults can speak and share and problem solve about sexting is the best possible approach at this time.

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