Sexting is the sharing of nude or sexually suggestive photos by electronic means, whether through texting, messaging, emailing, or posting on social media sites. Between consenting adults, sexting is generally legal. But sexting with a minor or sexting images of a minor can result in criminal consequences.
Sexting crimes generally fall under one of two categories: those involving sexting with a minor and those involving sexting images of a minor. Both adults and minors (younger than 18) can be charged with sexting offenses.
Adults who sext with minors may be charged with crimes relating to child enticement or disseminating harmful materials to minors. A minor or an adult who sends or receives sexually explicit images of a child could face child pornography or related charges. Even if the minor sends a nude selfie, that minor and whoever is on the receiving end have committed crimes.
Depending on the state laws invoked, sexting can result in serious penalties. In most states, child pornography, child enticement, and disseminating harmful materials to a minor are felony offenses, punishable by long terms in state prison and mandatory sex offender registration.
Because teen sexting tends to get caught up in these harsh laws, some states have enacted laws that specifically address teen sexting. Generally, these laws give children who engage in sexting a break so that they are not convicted and punished for serious sex offenses. Some states did this by providing teen sexting defenses to child pornography laws. Others have made teen sexting a separate, less serious offense or created diversion programs to pull kids out of the criminal justice system and into educational programs.
Sexting has other consequences, even if no criminal charges are filed, especially for kids. Schools have disciplined and suspended students involved in taking and sharing sexts. Images can easily be forwarded and shared, and even posted online. A person's reputation can be damaged, and this can make it difficult to talk advantage of educational or job opportunities. Teens whose private images are shared are often humiliated and some are bullied. In several cases, students whose photos have been distributed have committed suicide. Several states responded by enacting laws that prohibit nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images—referred to as revenge porn.
If you or your child is charged with a crime as a result of sexting, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can explain the laws in your state and how the case is likely to fare in court. An experienced criminal defense attorney can provide you with appropriate legal advice and inform you of the potential consequences, including whether juvenile defendants may be required to register as sex offenders, and whether there are alternatives to formal adult court, such as handling the matter in the juvenile court system. Talking to a lawyer is the best way to protect your rights.