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Let's talk about sex(ting) 

Law enforcement agents and teen groups are reporting an increase in pornographic messages and photos sent via cell phone

- SEX AND TEXTING:  Local law-enforcement officials and educators are concerned about an upswing in the amount of sexting (sending sexual photos and messages via cell phone) among teenagers. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SEX AND TEXTING: Local law-enforcement officials and educators are concerned about an upswing in the amount of sexting (sending sexual photos and messages via cell phone) among teenagers.
Across the nation, thousands of individuals and organizations are dedicated to teaching teens about the importance of safe and healthy sexual habits. There are also plenty of people and groups who advocate for abstinence only.

And now, thanks to the increasingly wired world in which we live, those educators are adding another topic to their repertoire: sexting.

A relatively new phenomenon, sexting is a slang term used to describe the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos via cell phone. In layman’s terms, it’s a virtual booty call. And according to law enforcement officials and educators, it’s becoming more and more popular among teenagers.

“[Sexting is] something we address when we do workshops at schools and training sessions for administrators and teachers because it’s definitely on the rise,” said Christy Haynes, teen services director at Domestic Violence Solutions for Santa Barbara County.

Some teens might view sexting as harmless flirtation, but Haynes said it can be a warning sign of something much more dangerous.

“It’s one of the areas that we’re starting to see lead to emotional violence,” she said.

As a result, Haynes and her co-workers have been striving to educate more students, parents, and school officials about the different kinds of dating violence.

“There are three primary means through which a person can abuse someone: verbal and emotional; physical; and sexual,” she said. “With sexting, the sexual, and even verbal/emotional abuse, really plays into that.

“Even if it’s just taking pictures of someone and forwarding them to other people, the rumors that start because of that can be really harmful,” she added. “And sometimes, the person isn’t even the one in the picture.”

Haynes went on to say that texting alone has also been getting a lot of media attention because of the alarming number of cyber bullying cases that have driven some teens to commit suicide.

One of the most well-known cases is that of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who in 2006 hanged herself after receiving hateful virtual messages from a boy she met online. The boy later turned out to be the fictitious creation of some family acquaintances.

More recently, a 15-year-old girl from Ireland allegedly committed suicide after classmates at her Massachusetts high school sent messages on several social networking sites calling her an “Irish slut” and “whore.”

Defendants in such cases have faced serious criminal charges, and the Meier case led several states to adopt anti-cyber bullying legislation.

Even if texts don’t contribute to something as tragic as suicide, however, law enforcement officials are still stressing that they’re illegal and could have legal consequences.

In March, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department forwarded a case to the District Attorney’s Office after a 14-year-old girl reported receiving pornographic images via cell phone from a 17-year-old male acquaintance. According to a press release from the Sheriff’s Department, further investigation revealed child pornography on the suspect’s personal computer.

A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office said the case is currently under review, but declined to offer any more information. In some other cases, however, teenagers have faced pornography charges for sexting.

So what can people do to stop to these texts?

Domestic Violence Solutions’ Haynes said it’s important everyone involved—students, teachers, and parents—play a role in combating the effects of sexting.

“I’ve gone to lots of parent-teacher nights at schools, and [sexting] really is a silent epidemic because the parents didn’t have any idea what was going on,” she said, adding that the same goes for social networking through sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.

“Some of the parents are horrified to see the pictures their kids are posting and some of the things they’re saying,” she said.

Craig Huseth, principal at Santa Maria High School, said he’s heard of some instances of sexting at his school, “but it’s very infrequent, and most of it is done out of school.”

The school’s policy forbids students from using cell phones at all on campus. If a student is found using his or her phone, Huseth said there are several potential consequences, including confiscation of the phone, holding a parent conference, or—if the texting is “especially egregious”—suspension.

“We look at each case individually,” he said. “And when we do address it, we’re very proactive, we’re consistent, and we’re fair.

“Our students have been brought up in the technological age,” he added. “I don’t know if they’re often thinking down the road, ‘If I send this to two or three people, pretty soon it could end up being 3,000 people in a few days or hours even.’”

Of course, not all teenagers think sexting is cool:

“It’s wrong on a lot of levels,” said one student at Pioneer Valley High School. “For one, why would a guy do that to a girl because she puts her trust in him and he’s supposed to care about her? And it’s wrong for the girl, because why would she do something like that if she knows it happens all the time?”

Amy Asman is News Editor at New Times’ sister newspaper, the Santa Maria Sun. She can be reached at aasman@santamariasun.com.

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