When Rusty McGuire travels to Virginia schools to talk to teenagers about the dangers of social media, he asks all of the girls in the audience to close their eyes. Then, he speaks plainly with the guys in the room. “Boys,” he says, “if you received a picture from your girlfriend that was nude, would you share it with your friends?” When the boys inevitably erupt into giggles, he instructs the girls to look around. “This is why you don’t send nude pictures,” he tells the girls. “These boys,” he says, “their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed yet.”
McGuire is the top prosecutor in Louisa County, a rural central Virginia community of 30,000 that McGuire affectionately calls “the middle of nowhere.” This month, the county gained a national profile after a local parent caught a glimpse of sexual photos on her daughter’s Instagram account and alerted authorities. According to reports from the Central Virginian and the Associated Press, an investigation by the county sheriff’s office uncovered more than 1,000 nude or sexually suggestive photos posted to Instagram accounts and shared between more than 100 teenagers in Louisa and surrounding counties. But unlike other teen sexting rings that have made national news—where sexters have been brought up on felony pornography charges or disciplined by their schools—Louisa has opted to respond to the scandalous headlines with a refreshing dose of common sense. Major Donald Lowe told the AP that although the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office is still scouring student cellphones for signs of nonconsensual sexual activity, which could result in criminal charges, most students involved won’t be prosecuted. “We said from the beginning that we’re not going to label everyone who participated in this a sex offender,” he said. “There’s no reason to destroy people’s lives and careers over this.”
Instead, Louisa is opting to deal with the situation in its schools, bringing in experts like McGuire to just talk to students, not to interrogate them. J. Douglas Straley, assistant superintendent for administration for Louisa County Public Schools, told me that instead of meting out punishments, Louisa schools are expanding programs to teach teenagers “the dangers of social media and how to make smart choices” and are launching a program for parents to help discuss the issue with their kids. McGuire “talks about the importance of not doing any [sexting] activities,” Straley told me. “If you put it out there, it doesn’t go away. Teenagers need to know that and understand that when they put it out there, they’re more or less saying that they’re OK with the world seeing this.”
It’s great that Louisa refuses to turn all sexters into criminals. But I’m not sure its educational approach is the right one. By telling girls that they’re responsible for boys who share their photos without their consent, the schools may end up blaming real victims.
There seems to be a disconnect here: Louisa’s sheriff’s office is only interested in pursuing criminal penalties against nonconsensual sharers, and Virginia passed a bill criminalizing revenge porn in February. Louisa schools, meanwhile, are sending the message that all sexting is bad, whether it’s consensual or not. While the sheriff’s office works to avoid destroying the futures of Louisa’s teenagers, schools are jumping in to remind them that sharing a sexual photo of yourself really can ruin your life. I know this because McGuire took me through his four-point sexting spiel. Point No. 1: Don’t share anything you wouldn’t want a college admission officer to see. No. 2: Don’t share anything you wouldn’t want a future employer to see. No. 3: Don’t share anything you wouldn’t want your future grandchildren to see. Only when he gets to point No. 4 does he turn his focus from kids sharing pictures of themselves to kids—perpetrators—sharing pictures of others: “Remember when you are sharing things that you don’t know the mental breaking point. It could cause someone to actually take their life,” McGuire says. “Do you want to be the one that pushes that kid over the edge?” he asks. “Who wants to live with that for the rest of their life?”
I understand why Louisa schools are focusing on the victims of sexting more than they do the bullies. It’s easier to reach teens who fear for their future Google searches than it is to reach the ones who are uploading compromising photos of others for public view, with no ramifications to their own reputations. After all, when McGuire asks boys about sharing nude photos, they just laugh. Beyond the closed-eyes exercise, McGuire says he doesn’t discuss gender much, though he does underscore the fact that boys can be victims, too. “The boys come in a little more cavalier, like, ‘Oh, this could never happen to me,’ ” he says. When he tells the story of Kelly Karl Bowen, a Virginia teacher McGuire prosecuted in 2004 for posing as a teenage girl to solicit nude photos from boys, “it breaks apart that stereotype of machoism a bit,” he says.
Still, the fact is that these online sexual encounters often end up being more damaging for girls. A 2013 study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that although teenage boys and girls were equally likely to snap intimate photos of themselves and share them with friends, boys were about twice as likely as girls to forward sexts along beyond their intended recipients. For a 2009 Pew report, researchers talked to American teens about sexting and found that girls who share photos of themselves are often stigmatized as narcissistic sluts while boys are framed as hapless lotharios. Both boys and girls contribute to that double standard, and it’s something we need to learn to start combating in discussions with kids of all ages. Louisa County was right to turn sexting into an educational opportunity as opposed to a crime story. But the focus of the sheriff’s office provides a helpful lesson to everyone hoping to educate teenagers about how to navigate relationships online: It isn’t the sexting that’s the problem. It’s the exploitation.