Three high school students in Fairfax County, Va., made cellphone videos of drunken sex acts with fellow teens and shared them among themselves, authorities said. When they go on trial today, they face a charge usually reserved for adult predators: child pornography.
The case is one of a number in Virginia where teens caught “sexting” have been charged with a felony that can carry a sentence of 20 years in prison and could require registry as a sex offender.
In Virginia, Maryland and many other states, the law has not caught up with the combustible mix of teens, technology and sex that has made sexting an issue. Prosecutors must rely on a patchwork of laws created before the rise of smartphones to handle such cases.
Some parents and rights groups are calling for a new law that would distinguish sexting from child pornography, create lesser punishments and focus on educating teenagers, not punishing them. But they also acknowledge that young victims can be devastated when embarrassing photos or videos are spread among their peers.
A Franklin County, Va., mother whose 15-year-old son was charged with 12 counts of child pornography for sexting called the experience a nightmare. She said the teen, who has Asperger’s syndrome, was naive when he sent out a topless photo of a classmate.
“It was probably the worst point of our life,” the woman said. “My son was in a severe depression. He is thinking his life was at an end. He could be labeled as a sex offender.”
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh said prosecutors across the state grapple with how to handle sexting cases. He said that no one wants to slap a teen with a felony sex charge but that those concerns have to be weighed against the impact on a victim when a sexted image or video goes public.
Parents of two teens in Ohio and Florida say their daughters committed suicide when they were ridiculed after sexually explicit images of them were forwarded to others. And sexted images and videos can be found by child pornographers, who trade them on the Internet.
“We try to resolve these cases wherever possible without going to the courts,” Morrogh said. “At the juvenile level, the goal is to rehabilitate the child.”
Most sexting cases in which teens are initially charged with child pornography are resolved outside of court or with lesser charges that result in probation or community service.