Republican logic: charge 14 year-old with the sexual exploitation of… herself?

Content Notice: Victim blaming, slut shaming, misogyny.

In 2014, a study came out of Drexel University that found around 50% of college students admitted that they had sexted prior to the age of 18. Now, as a person who is sex-positive, I see selfies–and sexy selfies in particular–as affirmations of healthy self image, and sharing them with a person who consents to receive them can be fun and exciting. Where the conversation is typically derailed is framing sexting between minors, who are peers, texting images of their own bodies, as child pornography. But the original intent of child pornography laws was to take into account that children can’t give informed consent to adults, because of the implied power differential regarding influence and manipulation. Sexting ones own body to consenting peers lack this differential, and shouldn’t qualify as child pornography, or even more generally a sex crime unless coercion or force could be demonstrated.

Ed Bull, an Iowa county prosecutor, disagrees. He has threatened a 14 year-old with a lifelong sex offender charge because she texted a suggestive image of herself that someone else picked up and distributed.

DES MOINES, Iowa — An Iowa county attorney has threatened to brand a teen a “sex offender” because she sent a friend photos of herself scantily clad, the girl’s family claims in federal court.

The photos at the heart of the Sept. 28 lawsuit depict a 14-year-old girl, named only as Nancy Doe in the lawsuit, in her underwear. In one photo, she wears a sports bra, and in the other she is topless with her long hair covering her breasts. She sent the photos to a male classmate via Snapchat and then deleted them, according to the lawsuit.

But the photos emerged again last spring when two male students were caught printing them off using a school printer, along with other photos of nude or partially nude male and female classmates, the 25-page complaint states.

The Knoxville School District discovered that male students had been trading, collecting and printing the photos, according to the lawsuit.

But a couple months after the photos were discovered, Marion County Attorney Ed Bull led a meeting for students who were involved in the school’s “sexting” crisis, along with their parents, plaintiffs say.

Although Nancy and her parents were unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict, at that meeting Bull allegedly informed the students present that “they could all be charged with child pornography charges and/or sexual exploitation of a minor charges … [which] would require them to register as a sex offender for life.”

The plaintiffs claim they also heard reports that at the meeting Bull “engaged in ‘slut shaming’ by informing the female students present that young ladies did not send such explicit photos to boys.”

To escape the criminal charges, the students would have to participate in a “diversion program” that required them to engage in community service, complete a class on the dangers and consequences of “sexting,” give up their laptops and cell phones for an unspecified period of time, and submit a written confession about their conduct to juvenile court services, plaintiffs claim.

In a private meeting with juvenile court services, the Does were also asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire “that delved into the intimate details of how [they] parented their daughter and how they disciplined her regarding the photographs,” the complaint says.

When the Does refused to fill out the questionnaire or to enroll Nancy in the diversion program, Bull continued to threaten her with criminal prosecution, according to the complaint.

All the other students involved opted to take the diversion program, plaintiffs say.

“Bull’s decision to prosecute the subject of the photographs, Nancy Doe herself, is unprecedented and stands anti-child-pornography laws on their head,” Nancy’s parents argue. “Anti-child-pornography laws are intended to protect the children shown in the photos and videos, and plaintiffs’ counsel has found no published Iowa or federal court decision sustaining such a prosecution against minors shown in such pictures.”

“Nancy Doe is, if anything, the victim in this case,” the complaint continues. “Someone else — not her — disseminated the photos without her permission to a large group of people.”

Nancy’s parents also object to the fact that Bull is attempting to make Nancy “admit in writing to a crime that does not exist.”

In addition, the Does are claiming Bull’s ultimatum interferes with their right to discipline their daughter as they see fit and also chills their daughter’s free speech.

The Does are requesting that the judge bar Bull from pressing criminal charges against Nancy.

So. Much. Wrong.

There is no precedent for prosecuting the sender of sexually suggestive material, and in this case it was to a consenting partner.

There is nothing morally or ethically wrong with sending sexually suggestive images of your own body to a consenting receiver who is your peer–in this case, from one minor to another.

There is nothing to confess to, and yet the children in question are being punished equally, despite the fact that the only ethical breach in this scenario were the kids distributing images without consent. The subjects of the photographs have done nothing wrong, and there is no rational reason to enforce the same consequences on them as their offenders.

Ed Bull is abusing his influence to make slut shaming and victim blaming an official policy. It is not for him to decide what makes a “proper lady,” nor is it in any way defensible to threaten kids with a lifelong sex offender status for taking pictures of themselves.

This intervention is not “rehabilitative” because it enforces the notion that victims are to blame for the poor behaviour of their offenders. Nor does it redress the awful bullying kids do by using non-consensually shared images to shame the victim–BECAUSE THE COUNTY IS USING LAW TO BULLY THE VICTIM.

And it is not the place of Juvenile Services to dictate to parents they must punish their child for committing no crimes!

In what fucking world can a victim be charged as their own exploiter?!

Fuck every god damn thing in this story. Dog above, Republicans make me angry.

brb replacing keyboard



  1. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    It doesn’t seem obvious to me that this is Republican sentiment. I see this as a sort of “think of the children!” tactic, which IMHO seems quite effective among Democrats too. Why do you think this is a largely Republican phenomenon? Maybe it is. I’m just wondering why you think that.

  2. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Yea, but this is not an unusual event. I recall reading that this sort of situation has happened many times before. I’m asking why you think this is a distinctly Republican phenomenon, in the broader sense. You answered with a single piece of evidence that covers only a single example. I want data, not anecdote, in order to back up your claim, because I am curious why you think it’s true. If you think it’s true only on this basis, then thank you for that answer.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Alas, the story linked in # 2 does not mention the prosecutor/politician’s church affiliation.

    This reminds me of a story from the pre-digital-camera era, in which a (Wisconsin or around there) man went to state prison for several years for possession (not distribution) of some Polaroid photos of himself having sex with his girlfriend. She was, at the time, of age legally to have sex with an adult, but not yet 21 – so not yet old enough to have pictures taken of it.

  4. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    There is no precedent for prosecuting the sender […]

    Oh, I see. I missed that. It seems that you’re operating under a false assumption that this is new. Allow me to dissuade you from that.

    I admit that it’s a little hard to meet your strict criteria of “must involve prosecuting only the person who sends the picture to one other minor with the expectation that it be kept private” because many cases I’m finding involve transfer of pictures both ways between minors with expectations that it be kept private, with criminal child porn charges for both.

    However, with a little bit of work, here’s one:

    Reason’s Robby Soave passes along the story of a 17 year-old boy in North Carolina who faces a possible future as a registered sex offender because he had a nude picture on his smartphone, a nude picture of himself:

    Here’s a random paper that I found in my googling.

    I’m pretty sure that contrary to your beliefs, this is not a new phenomenon. This has been going on for a while now. Where the sender is a minor, sending pictures of their own body, to one other minor, with the expectation that no further dissemination would happen, it’s become relatively common to see criminal child porn adult criminal charges IIRC.

  5. Siobhan says

    I’m asking why you think this is a distinctly Republican phenomenon, in the broader sense

    Because Republican platforms across the United States are:

    1) Anti sex education
    2) Anti contraception
    3) Anti choice & forced birth
    4) Sometimes explicitly theocratic with undeniable connections to so-called Biblical morality

    It’s not hard to notice that the GOP has a hard-on for literally punishing any expressions of female sexuality, even when there are no rational criteria for doing so. Certainly this is one example of that. Ed Bull makes it even more apparent by lecturing on what “proper” ladies do–no comment from him on the boys who distributed the material without the subject’s consent, their poor behaviour is simply assumed and it is the responsibility of young women to work around that. It’s one more notch in a long history of institutionalizing patriarchy by the Republicans.

    The outrageous example you provided occurred in North Carolina. My Google-fu could not confirm that DA’s political affiliations.

    Nonetheless, even if it is true that Democrat-affiliated DAs have prosecuted in a similar fashion, that doesn’t erase that the Republicans across the country are more consistently patriarchal and theocratic.

    I’ll grant that there is apparently a precedent in other States for prosecuting the sender of these suggestive photos, but the attorney representing the Does suggests it hasn’t yet happened in Iowa. And hopefully, it never will.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I don’t know about the political affiliations of the prosecutors. However, I still strongly suspect that this is just a case of “but think of the children” and “protect the children”, and therefore I suspect that Democrat and Republican government criminal prosecutors alike regularly prosecute minors for this. Obviously, this is just a gut reaction.

    Thank you for your answers.

  7. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Oh, and this is also probably a case of government criminal prosecutors being asshats and charging people because they can, in order to look tough on crime, and especially on child porn. No prosecutor wants to look weak when it comes to child porn. It’s bad if they want to keep their job. Our criminal justice system is ludicrously broken, and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

  8. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Sorry for multi-posting.

    How often do the charges become convictions?

    I bet I can answer this one:
    Almost every single case, or every single case, ends in plea bargain with varying degrees of reduced charges, but often enough it includes a lifetime sex offender registry, because “protect the children” asshats who have BS statutory minimums and no judicial and jury discretion.

    Remember, it’s something like 95% of all criminal charges in the United States end in plea bargain. IIRC, that does count as a “conviction”, but this is an important distinction to be made for those who don’t know anything about the US criminal justice system. I doubt that this is any different for minors who are charged with possession of child porn. I also doubt that cops on the scene are allowed discretion in cases like this, and the government prosecutors almost assuredly won’t use their discretion to not press charges. Did I mention that our criminal justice system is fucked up? In many ways, it’s guilty until proven innocent w.r.t. the ridiculously high plea bargain rate, the malicious police and government prosecutors, and the costs and risks of going to trial.

  9. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Hell, I have a friend who is on the sex offender’s registry for life for having entirely consensual sex with his high school girlfriend, who was IIRC 2 years younger than him, like ages 16 and 18, simply because it counted as statutory rape of a child because of the ages. This sort of criminal charge is also distressingly common. With regards to child porn and child sexual assault, the laws are really fucked up in corner cases like mine and the one in the OP, because of the sometimes hysterical overreaction to protect kids from all things sex.

    Ok. Done posting. Sorry.

  10. Edward Gemmer says

    I’d say somewhat frequently. The big issue is if a 16 or 17 year old is convicted (and most charged are in this group), they must register as a sex offender for at least ten years. This makes going to trial problematic if you can avoid it by pleading to something else, which the prosecutors would typically offer.

  11. Siobhan says

    For the record I don’t mind the rapid succession posts. Bullshit like this ought to inspire key-smashing behaviour. :P

  12. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Giliell
    Politely, just like I said to the OP, I wonder why you think this. Again, maybe I’m just too blind from my position of white male cis-straight privilege, but it seems obvious to me that cases like this as a result of “but think of the children!” run amok, and one can blame all sides of the political spectrum for that. It looks really bad if a cop, or government prosecutor, or rep, is weak on child porn and child rape. Imagine the attacks that an opponent could do if they actually used their discretion in cases like this, or if the rep tried to make the law into something sane. There might be a huge uproar that they’re allowing child exploitation and child rape. That’s the kind of sentiment that leads to a strict zero-tolerance policy that causes these poor kids / young adults to be charged with ludicrous charges, whether it’s child porn for taking pictures of themselves and their similarly aged partners, or whether it’s consensual sex with their similarly aged partners.

    Of course, I can easily see the other side of the problem: Allowing some discretion will probably lead to cases where the person really ought to be prosecuted not being prosecuted.

    I like some of the “Romeo and Juliet” rules that attempt to solve the problems w.r.t. statutory rape laws, specifically the versions that make it not an offense if the two persons have ages that are sufficiently close.

    Entirely off the cuff, I think that passing rules that very limited distribution of naked pictures et al are allowed as long as all recipients and senders are about the same age as the aforementioned specific version of “Romeo and Juliet” laws, or maybe the law would have drastically reduced penalties in situations like this. In other words, make it still a criminal offense in all cases for wider distribution, but as long as transmission is intended to just one person, or just a small number of persons, where the intended recipients are sufficiently close in age to the sender and the person in the pic, then reduced or no penalties (preferably no penalties). Dittos for possession. Again, off the cuff, so maybe I missed something.

    I wish more juries would properly jury nullify. This is one of the few situations where I know that I would jury nullify if I was on the jury. It’s fucking bullshit that an kid, young adult, minor, should be penalized for normal consensual sexual behavior with other persons of roughly the same age.