Teenage sexting considered felony under child pornography laws

What many teenagers today consider “sending nudes” could be considered felonies under Oregon child pornography statutes that prohibit development, possession and distribution of sexually explicit materials, regardless of age. That means a student who shares nudes can be charged with a crime and face the consequences.

The heaviest charge is under ORS 163.688, the possession of materials depicting sexually explicit conduct of a child in the first degree, where a person “knowingly possesses, accesses or views a visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a child or a visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct that appears to involve a child; and uses the visual depiction to induce a child to participate or engage in sexually explicit conduct.” The charge carries a 70-100 month minimum sentence under Measure 11, passed in 1994 and would place convicts in the sex offender registry. 

Prosecutors have been discouraged from placing criminal charges or imposing less severe and lasting punishments in charging teenage sexting cases. 

When cases do appear, however, the laws will apply as written. In 2017, the Washington Supreme Court upheld a conviction of 17-year-old E.G., who sent a sexually explicit photo of himself via text message to an adult woman whom he knew. 

In its opinion, the Court wrote, “On its face, [the law] includes any person, even a minor taking picture of himself. Our responsibility is to interpret the law, not to write it, and here the law is clear.” Minors distributing child pornography, even if it is of themselves, still fall under the definition of the statute.

Similarly, in Kentucky, eighth grader B.H. was convicted sexual misconduct and viewing or possessing matter portraying a sexual performance by a minor with a peer in seventh grade. Though the conduct was consensual and his peer was not prosecuted, the parent of the peer decided to pursue criminal charges, which led to B.H.’s conviction. 

B.H. was also placed under the Juvenile Sex Offender Registry, a label which will last forever and create barriers to housing, employment and education. Oregon is one of 38 states that place youth on sex offender registries. 

In both Washington and Kentucky, though defendants argue that the legislature never meant the laws to apply to minors, the Courts remained firm.

 “A person is any person, including a minor,” they contend.

In 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed the Responsible Teen Communications Act in response to the verdict of the state’s Supreme Court. The Court wrote that, “If the legislature intended to exclude children, it could do so by amending the statute.” The act decriminalizes minors creating, possessing and viewing sexually explicit images of themselves or peers by reducing the charge to a misdemeanor. It also invests in evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies. Washington joined 25 states to address teen sexting. 

Reforms to child pornography laws to address minors have been called for by legal scholars and a former president of the National District Attorneys Association.