Why Is Teen Sexting a Crime When Teen Sex Isn't?

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Kate Moore and Morgan Dynda of the U.S. compete in the LG Mobile World Cup Texting Championship in New York City on January 14, 2010. The author writes that there’s no evidence people who sext become involved with child porn—which should come as a relief, given that sexting is common. Mike Segar/reuters

This article first appeared on Reason.com.

Another male teenager's future is in jeopardy after police charged him with possession of child pornography and contributing to the delinquency of a minor—all because he swapped sexy photos and videos with a girl.

Levar Allen, a 17-year-old athlete at his Louisiana public school, is black. The girl, a 16-year-old, is white. Local news stories note that she initiated the sexting, and he reciprocated.

His mother—a single mother of three—has spent thousands of dollars getting her son out of jail and fighting the charges. She thinks her son's race may have played a role in the police department's decision to vigorously punish him.

"I think because she's white, the parents got upset that she's been doing what she's been doing," she told KSLA.com. "A little girl sent him a video, she was 16. He sent her a video, and he got charged."

New York Daily News columnist Shaun King agrees:

Millions upon millions of teenagers are doing this very thing and he was selectively targeted among them, and made an example of, because he crossed a line that clearly irritated not only her white parents but white law enforcement officers, as well.

For what it's worth, the girl was also charged with sexting. But since she's under the age of 17, it's a misdemeanor. Since Allen is a year older, he's charged with a felony.

It strikes me as perfectly plausible that the young man's race is working against him. We know that the criminal justice system discriminates against blacks. Experts also suspect that black students of color are disproportionately accused of sexual misconduct and mistreated during college rape trials. Something similar might be at work here.

But it's worth noting that anti-male bias can be as powerful an influencer as race in cases like this, where a young woman is seen as the victim—even if she initiated the inappropriate behavior.

It's also worth noting that police intervention in these cases is absurd. Lieutenant Bill Davis defended his efforts using the following erroneous logic:

We had our detectives go to every high school and every middle school here in Bossier Parish and talked to all of the students about the consequences of not only sexting but how it can lead in to child pornography.

Nonsense. There is no evidence that people who sext become involved with child pornography—which should come as a relief, given that sexting is overwhelmingly common among people of all ages. The worst consequence of sexting is the one that law enforcement agents carry out: arrest.

If young people seeing one another's naked bodies was such a horrible crime, surely the state of Louisiana would prohibit them from having actual sex as well. And yet it does no such thing.

In Louisiana, the age of consent is 17, but people younger than 17 can consent if they are within two years of age of their partner. For people younger than 15, they can consent if the gap is three years. A 13-year-old can consent to sex with a 16-year-old for instance, but a 15-year-old cannot consent to sex with an 18-year-old.

I don't understand the logic behind such a law, but then again I don't understand the logic of criminalizing consensual sexting between teenagers who are approximately the same age either.

Robby Soave is an associate editor at Reason.com.

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