Written for the Feminist Psychologist by Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D

In 2008, the District Attorney of Wyoming County in Pennsylvania presented 16 teens – 3 boys and 13 girls — suspected of “sexting” with a choice: either attend a 5 week, 10-hour education program designed by the District Attorney or face felony child pornography charges. Not much of a choice: if charged and convicted the teens faced a possible seven-year sentence and a felony record. They would also have to register as sex offenders for 10 years and have their names and photos posted on the state’s sex-offender website. Still, three girls refused the “voluntary education course” and instead, with the support of their parents and the ACLU, obtained a preliminary injunction barring prosecution under state child-porn laws. On March 17, 2010 the appellate court upheld the preliminary injunction, accusing prosecutors of violating the civil rights of the teens.

What had these girls done? A 12- and 13-year-old posed for pictures in their underwear at a slumber party; one was speaking on the phone, the other making a peace sign. The third girl, 14, appeared in a photo emerging from the shower wrapped in a towel, just below her breasts. There was no evidence that the girls had ever transmitted the photos; they were discovered when male students were caught trading the images over their cell phones. While both boys and girls were threatened and pressed to undergo education, only the girls were required to learn about sexual self-respect.

If you’re tuned into youth culture, it’s impossible to miss the hysteria around sexting. Research conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy revealed that 20 percent of teens in the U.S. say they have sent or posted lewd photos or video of themselves. Given that one picture can make its way far and wide in minutes, it’s likely that most of this 20% represent those forwarding or receiving photos, not posting them. But just as with previous reports of rainbow bracelets and oral sex, there’s a Press Gone Wild reaction to sexting, almost always blaming girls for their “stupid” acts.

Outside the Pennsylvania appeals court, MaryJo Miller, the mother of one of the 12 year olds, said that when she saw the pictures of the slumber party, she thought the girls were “goofballs.” Her daughter was wearing a training bra. “You are going to see more provocative photos in a Victoria’s Secret catalog.” That’s an understatement. Quick to judge, rarely do the press, police, or school officials make reference to the obvious: the normalizing of sexual voyeurism and sex camming in media. Whether it’s expendable babes baring it all for celebrity on Entourage, Heroes character Tracy Strauss supporting herself and her young child by stripping online, or America’s Next Top Model contestants posing in sexually provocative ways for the camera, the message to girls watching is always, if you need or want something badly enough, you should be willing to sex it up for public consumption. In the VH1 reality show For the Love of Ray J, for instance, girls with nicknames like Cocktail, Chardonnay, and Danger will do anything to be chosen. In what sounds like a middle school dating game, in one episode Ray J asks the girls “to pretend I’m out of town and you have to keep me interested.” Of course the girls do everything from a strip tease to sexy raps to making a “human banana split” — even Ray J is so shocked by that one that he can’t stay in his seat to watch.

One newspaper excitedly reports that teens are on to the legal risks of posting photos, and so they’re taking shots of body parts or being careful not to include their faces. Who really knows how many teen girls are this hell-bent on public nudity, but no doubt American Apparel had liability in mind when they developed their recent “best bottoms” campaign. Looking for the new “face” of AA, they invited girls (18+, but really, who’s checking?) to upload a “close-up photo” of their ass-ets to the website. I don’t know about you, but I’m on the edge of my own perfectly adequate seat waiting to find out which porn-inspired fave will win — Boom Boom, Luba, bOOtAAyliCiOus, or Cherry.

We can complain about the perfectly sexy angels in Victoria’s Secret Love Your Body ad campaign (please!), but there’s something particularly icky about American Apparel’s use of ordinary women in its ads, producing low-brow Polaroid-like pictures with a back room naughty feel that normalizes the acts teen girls are now threatened with arrest for imitating. Diesel Jeans adds their spin by capitalizing on adolescent rebellion. “Stupid” is crazy, fun, risk-taking! Smart is “the crusher of possibilities.” For girls, there’s just one way to prove you’ve got the balls to be stupid: show us your boobs!

Teen girls are comparatively measured in their response to sexting. When a blogger on Jezebel.com asked about this issue, girls were more likely to say it wasn’t something they’d seen or experienced personally. They sounded more thoughtful about the causes and more understanding about the outcomes than anything reported in the news. The real story, they say, is the unintended consequences of an impulsive act; the real concern is that girls are more likely to be judged, vilified and threatened with prosecution. As one girl said of the threats to girls like those in the Pennsylvania lawsuit, “it’s hard to get my head around the fact that you’re making the victim the criminal.” Pretty smart.