Do children understand the meaning of consent, pornography and laws related to these topics? Perhaps the very idea seems outlandish, as these are just children, however, recent news in Chicagoland seems to indicate a need for some form of education to those children upon entering middle school.
Early last week, a sexting scandal involving a small group of eighth graders at a suburban middle school was brought to light. This event involved images which were ‘unknowingly redistributed’ among other students. A few days later, another sexting scandal broke out at a different middle school, this one involving sixth graders.
During one morning last week, I heard the term ‘distribution of child pornography’ used in reference to the eighth graders. Children are not above the law, and, depending on where the investigation leads, some may face such charges.
What saddens me most about these events is that the children involved were probably not educated on the seriousness of their actions. When I was in middle school, bullies used various words and actions that were uncomfortably lewd against me. In seventh grade, I remember the words ‘sexual harassment’ coming out of my parents mouth as they tried to figure out if there was anything they could do.
Using sexual terminology for bullying purposes is nothing new. Even so, bullies are just children. They don’t completely understand the damage they do. Much of the effort to stop bullying involves trying to build that understanding so children know their actions are wrong and have consequences. Perhaps that effort needs to be expanded to include the differences between bullying, sexual harassment and distribution of pornography.
The idea that we should be discussing sexual topics with children who are 10 years old is unnerving. Then again, I have a high school friend who lost her virginity before the eighth grade. These things happen. Yes, maybe they shouldn’t happen at such a young age. Maybe broken families contribute to that kind of behavior. However, these events are going to happen, and the children involved, regardless of their home life, deserve the chance to protect themselves with knowledge.
The problem is, I’m not really sure what to suggest. What kind of education should be provided? These issues get very close to grey areas society has yet to figure out. For example, many states have laws making it illegal to have sex under a certain age. For arguments sake, let say the age is 16. What happens in the event two 15-year-olds have consensual sex? Technically, they are both breaking the law. Should we prosecute them both?
I don’t have the answers to these questions and I don’t think the law has answers either. When it comes to things like sexting and the distribution of lewd images, where is the line? It has become common for adults to exchange naked photos of each other and to sext back and forth. This is all consensual and legal. If we change the situation so those people are underage and legally unable to consent, what then?
This is where I am left puzzled. I already think we should include consent education (defining what is and isn’t consent) in sex education. Should we also be teaching earlier? Perhaps more pressing, how do you explain to a 10-year-old or 13-year-old that, even though they have a phone, and even though they can, of their own free will, take a photo of themselves naked and distribute it, that they also can’t consent to that photo being taken and/or distributed and are breaking the law by doing so?
I’m at odds here, with more questions than answers. The question I really want to ask is hard to even type, but I’m going to ask anyway. I’m wondering if there is some form of consent a child has. Could we say it is legal (note that legal does not mean right) for two consenting children to engage in such activities? I immediately want to say no, because I see a 14-year-old taking advantage of a five-year-old as something that should be clearly defined as an illegal act. Yet, being taken advantage of implies that consent was not given my the five-year-old, right?
I know this is all ridiculous. Consent and children; what is the world coming to? The actions of these children are disgustingly wrong. However, I’m hesitant to place a child who took their own photo and choose to distribute that photo in a in the same group as child pornography distributors. Even if these photos ended up being used as a bullying tactic, is that really equal to the distribution of child pornography. What happens when a child is charged with such a heavy transgression? Certainly there is a difference between a child who didn’t understand what they were doing and a sexual deviant.