Teen sexting prosecution prompts outrage

Three teen boys hold cellphones.

On Wednesday the Washington Post reported on the case of a 17-year-old from Manassas, Virginia, who is facing felony charges for manufacturing and possessing child pornography after he allegedly texted nude images of himself to his 15-year-old girlfriend.

According to the boy's defence attorney, Jessica Harbeson Foster, prosecutors in the Washington-area Prince William County want to bolster their case by taking photos of the suspect's aroused penis and comparing it to the texted image using "special software".

She says the prosecutors have plans if the teen does not willingly comply.

Start Quote

The prosecutor's job is to seek justice. What is just about this?”

End Quote Jessica Harbeson Foster Defence attorney

"We just take him down to the hospital, give him a shot and then take the pictures that we need," Ms Foster says she was told.

She added that the police had already taken a photo of her client's flaccid penis, obtained despite his objections.

"The prosecutor's job is to seek justice," the attorney told the Post. "What is just about this? How does this advance the interest of the Commonwealth?"

It didn't take long for the Post story to go viral.

The case raises a number of challenging questions. Why was the girl, who allegedly started the string of explicit texted images, not also charged with child pornography? Should child pornography laws be applicable in cases of teenage sexting? Is it appropriate that, if convicted, the teen will have to register as a sex offender for life?

The forced-erection angle generated the most media outrage, however. Could a prosecutor really demand such an intrusive search? And could a judge really go along with it?

"Law enforcement officials in Prince William County, Va. have come up with a truly creative way to combat the dissemination of child pornography: create more child pornography for comparison!" writes Salon's Jenny Kutner.

Mediaite's Tina Nguyen says the story sounds like a bad television comedy sketch. "Yes," she writes, "this is real life."

Start Quote

This is the tale of a police force and prosecutors who allegedly want to do the unspeakable in order to fight what some might describe as, well, teens being teens”

End Quote Chris Matyszczyk CNET

Dan Savage, a love advice columnist, took to Twitter to encourage his 192,000 followers to send pictures of their own engorged genitalia to the Manassas police.

On Wednesday night, the police issued a written response to the media firestorm. Although the department declined to comment on the details of the case, it stated:

It is not the policy of the Manassas City Police or the Commonwealth Attorney's Office to authorise invasive search procedures of suspects in cases of this nature and no such procedures have been conducted in this case.

After the initial shock headlines involving shots and photographs, some writers took a look at the bigger picture.

"This is the tale of a police force and prosecutors who allegedly want to do the unspeakable in order to fight what some might describe as, well, teens being teens," writes CNET's Chris Matyszczyk.

He says that criminalising sexting is the wrong way to address what should be considered a lapse of judgement on the part of youth.

"It's not as if technology has suddenly caused teenagers to behave in questionable ways," he writes. "The only difference is that now it can be much more widely disseminated.

"It's true that once something is digitally transmitted, it will likely live forever, at least in some dark virtual corner," he continues. "Education is, perhaps, the best way to warn teens of the dangers."

Slate's Emily Bazelon says that consent is the key issue here. Were both the boy and the girl willing participants in the text exchange? State legislatures, which have widely divergent ways of addressing teen sexting, need to come up with clearer laws.

"What they should do is distinguish between consensual sexting, and (especially) sending out an image of someone who would not want that picture or video to circulate, or to someone who does not wish to receive it."

Those with good memories may recall that Manassas was also the home of Lorena Bobbitt, who made international headlines in 1993 when she was charged with cutting off her husband's penis while he slept.

The case created a media circus and was the butt of late-night jokes for years afterward.

The next scheduled court date in the sexting case is set for July 15. It looks like the circus is coming back to town.

UPDATE (14:43 EDT): On Thursday afternoon the Associated Press reported that the Manassas City Police will no longer proceed with plans to take new photographs of the teen "and will let a search warrant authorising the photos expire".



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  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    62. Michael_USA "UK is more religious than Iran"

    Tommyrot, 40% of UK citizens say no belief in god, Iran you take religious tests to hold government office,it's only 10% in US don't believe sky pixies.

    "UK only Western country to still have a "established" church"

    Denmark & Norway not in the west?

    The supreme court judgement suggests the US may become a theocracy. Had an atheist president?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.


    What has how religious a country is got to do with porn? The average person in the UK is not interested in religion and certainly there is very little religion involved in politics.

    I can assure you there is plenty of people who profess to be religious who look at and make pornography.

    We do not have the same level of passion over sexuality & sex you would see from Midwest churches

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    @Mark Braddock

    If America is so religious -- then why is the U.S. the largest producer of pornography in the world? It's estimated that around 89% of the world's total porn is produced inside the United States. We have more porn stars than all of Europe combined.

    As reported by RT (RussiaToday), the U.S. is also the largest producer of child porn.

    We also have the highest divorce rate in world

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.


    The UK is more religious than Iran.

    In fact -- the UK is the only Western country to still have a "state-established" church (the Church of England).

    The UK is also the only Western country to force ISP's (Internet Service Providers) to block pornography unless the user "opts-in".

    The promotion of homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 2003 -- under a law called "Section28"

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    In the hey day of film - Film developers would not send this type of picture back to you because sending pornography through the mail is a crime - so who knows where that photo wound up. Shouldn't E-mail abide by the same rules? And its not teens being teens - it is teens trying to emulate what they see on TV shows where the teens are played by twenty somethings going on thirty somethings.


Comments 5 of 65


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