Dear Prudence

In Defense of Dopey Teen Sexters

In a chat with Slate Plus members, Emily Yoffe talks about prosecutorial overreach in a Virginia sexting case.


Illustration by Charlie Powell

We’re inviting Dear Prudence columnist Emily Yoffe to take an advice-giving reprieve. In a new chat series, Emily will join Slate Plus members for a monthly conversation about other topics. The news, what Emily’s reading—anything really—just don’t ask her for advice! (You can do that in one of Emily’s weekly chats.)

Last week, she talked about a “crazy” Virginia sexting case. Emily also talked about why it’s challenging to follow up with Dear Prudence letter writers, and she reveals whether she reads the comments section below her column.

Find the original conversation here and an edited transcript below.

Emily Yoffe: Welcome, everyone, thanks for joining this conversation.

We can talk about anything, but I’m going to start by ranting about this crazy Virginia sexting case in which a 17-year-old boy who exchanged naked texts with his girlfriend might be charged as a child pornographer for it. This would mean jail time and sex offender status. When I’ve written about how destructive our sex offender laws are and how the registry does more to ruin lives than protect the public, I’ve been surprised at how much support I’ve gotten from readers.

I think people understand there is a lot of prosecutorial overreach and the laws need revision. A registry should be for the worst of the worst, not dopey kids.

DoSo: Is it a problem with the laws or the prosecutors? Do prosecutors not have the options available to charge for a wide range of sexual crimes? Or should more of the blame go to prosecutors who are just overzealous? Surely they must realize the consequences of these convictions, no?

Yoffe: It’s probably both, but this seems like an extreme example of prosecutorial discretion run amok. Obviously a prosecutor’s office can look at the facts and instead of filing criminal charges can just say, “Kids, no more naked pictures, please.” I think we need a serious rethinking of our sexting laws—kids should just not get caught up in the criminal justice system for this unless there is a compelling reason. I think child porn laws are being misapplied if they are used to punish sexting teens.

pilotgallo2: In my opinion the police and prosecution are overreaching. I have trouble seeing the value of making the young man accused do this other than to try to force an unfavorable settlement.

Yoffe: Totally agree. The case became a cause célèbre because the police were threatening to inject the boy’s penis, make it erect, and photograph it for “evidence.” Thus creating child porn themselves! It clearly was a tactic to try to force a guilty plea from a kid. The entire case is evidence of mass insanity—we’re talking about two kids sending naughty pictures to each other. This is not what our child porn laws are for.

DoSo: I think it would be outrageously sexually abusive if the state were allowed to conduct such a humiliating violation. And while I would be very concerned and upset if I found my daughter’s boyfriend had sexted a picture of his genitals to her, I think it’s excessively punitive to charge the boy with felony pornography. Perhaps there are other aggravating factors that warrant the felony charge, but on the surface it seems unjust.

* * *

smartin055: What is your favorite part of being Dear Prudie?

Yoffe: I feel so lucky to have this job. One of the best, most amazing parts is that people will write to me—a total stranger—with the most intimate secrets that they’ve never told anyone! It’s fantastic that they feel the column is a safe place to express this. And I know that beyond wanting to hear what I have to say, letter writers avidly (sometimes painfully!) read the comments.

The other best part is when I hear back from people who say my answer helped!

* * *

cricketteer: How do you decide which letters you want to follow up with at the end of the year?

Yoffe: For one thing, if someone writes back to me to say what happened, I almost always use it. I generally don’t go seeking follow-ups from people, but I’ve started to do it more because of this feature we’re doing on The Gist. I’ve found that I have to contact four letter writers to get one who wants to say what happened.

LNF: That seems kind of ungrateful of them. If they chose to write to you, and you were nice enough to publish their letter and give advice, why is it such an imposition to tell you how things turned out?

Yoffe: People have no obligation to give me a follow-up. It’s totally at their discretion, and I completely understand that many people just don’t want to do it. 

Editor’s note: Emily answered the above comment from LNF after the July 11 chat.

* * *

pilotgallo2: What is it really like working for Slate? Is David Plotz really a hard (in a good way) editor to work for? What is the best part of writing for Slate?

Yoffe: It will sound too sappy if I go on about what a great place Slate is: stimulating, collegial, encouraging. (My daughter is in the room and notes this is not parallel structure.) How lucky to have a boss who supports you and challenges you and wants you to try new things and go ahead and take that risk.

Editor’s note: After this chat, on July 14, David Plotz announced his decision to step down as Slate’s editor in chief. Earlier this week, Emily joined other Slate staffers in toasting David’s tenure.

* * *

LNF: Do you read the Dear Prudie comments?

Yoffe: I definitely check in regularly the day the columns post. I feel it’s really important for me to get a sense of how the reader reaction is running. But some days there are several thousand comments, so I can’t guarantee I read every one.

Celery Salt: If you actually read them, do they ever make you rethink your original positions?

Yoffe: Comments do sometimes make me rethink my position. Often when I come down on something I already know there’s a great case to be made for an alternate point of view. Sometimes overwhelming commenter disdain just makes me dig in harder!

Editor’s note: Emily noted that she was especially interested to read these comments from her July 8 chat.

* * *

DoSo: Apologies if this has been asked before, but I’ve been wondering: How often (if ever) do you receive correspondence that is signed by someone using their real name? Would you ever print a question with a person’s real name if they wanted it out there? Do you ever print a question but give a clever alias to someone who has written to you using their real name? Thanks!

Yoffe: I often can see the real names of people who write to me, but I guard everyone’s privacy zealously. About 85 percent of people come up with their own sign-offs, the rest I make up. People just don’t want their real names attached to questions, and it’s never come up that someone has said, “Please reveal my identity.”

* * *

pilotgallo2: What do your husband and daughter think of you writing about them? I know when I was a teenager I would not have wanted my parents to write about me in such a public setting even if they never used my name. Also do your family, immediate or extended, ever feel you gave bad advice as Dear Prudence?

Yoffe: I’ve mentioned before that if you don’t want to be written about you shouldn’t marry a writer or be born to one! My husband has never complained and he’s mostly amused by his appearances. My daughter has had a slighter and slighter presence in my writing the older she’s gotten (and not just because she’s too old to say “cute stuff”). I agree that a writer’s child deserves privacy. Beyond mentioning that say, my daughter is going off to college in a few weeks, if I am making a substantive reference to her, I run it by her first. She’s very understanding!

* * *

Jedi Toby: As an advice columnist, you receive letter upon letter from people with dysfunctional relationships, poor habits, and generally just “drama.” Does it all get to you? Do you sometimes say, “I can’t do this right now; I’m emotionally spent.” And how do you recharge and stay positive?

Yoffe: I often am moved and distressed by the terrible situations people are in. Sometimes just everything is wrong: unemployed, sick, kids with problems, etc., etc. My inbox regularly reminds me how much tragedy there is in the world. I usually don’t use those letters for the column but try to reply and give people some ideas for social service agencies or suggest counseling.

Maybe because I’m only connecting to people in this anonymous, limited way, and not actually being a therapist with continuing responsibility for trying to straighten things out, it does not feel like too much. I feel privileged that people feel the column is a place to turn. I often get letters from people saying, “I just wrote to you. Please don’t use my letter. It helped to write it all down, and now I have a better idea of what to do.”

* * *

FriscoChris: Is it OK for a man to pee in the sink on an airplane? Assuming one is tidy. Tall men have a better chance of hitting the sink properly than the toilet way down there, leaving it cleaner for those that need to sit.

Yoffe: I just had an airplane pee question from a flight attendant who was so pissed off at how many men refuse to flush the toilet. Sorry, I just can’t endorse this. If your aim has not been exceptional, get a paper towel and clean up after yourself. And flush!

* * *

ericgehman: Emily—are you following the World Cup? Thoughts on the U.S. team’s performance and the growing popularity of soccer?

Yoffe: I have a disability, not yet described in the medical literature, that makes it very difficult for me to follow team sports involving a ball. However, I’m married to a sports nut, so I’ve ended up watching a lot more soccer than I imagined I would and have enjoyed it. I have to agree with the people who’ve noted soccer players are remarkably gorgeous, so that helps. But after every World Cup commentators say that finally American will become permanently soccer mad—yet it never happens.

* * *

seaeffess: Hi Emily! Have you any thoughts on the introversion/extroversion personality dyad? Useful or mostly bogus?

Yoffe: I think it’s a very helpful way to understand people. Obviously most people are somewhere on the continuum and not at either end. I once took one of those personality tests, and while I am an extrovert, I was just barely over the line. I like social events but can find them draining and I need to retreat to recharge myself.

* * *

LNF: Emily, any plans in the works for you to do a podcast, either as a stand alone, or as a segment on one of the other Slate podcasts? I really enjoyed the modern manners podcast [Manners for the Digital Age] you and Farhad Manjoo did for a while, as well as your guest appearance on Savage Love recently.  

Yoffe: Thanks! I’m actually doing a semi-recurring feature now on The Gist, Slate’s wonderful new podcast with Mike Pesca. We get in touch with people whose letters I’ve answered and do an “after action report.” Here’s a link to the latest Gist episode to feature one.

* * *

Celery Salt: Just wanted to state my appreciation for your article last year regarding alcohol consumption and sexual assault on college campuses. You received a lot of unfair criticism for what you wrote, but as the father of a college-aged daughter, I thought you were spot on and very even-handed.

Yoffe: Thank you, Celery Salt. And it’s good we’re at the end of this conversation because we definitely don’t want to reopen that right now. I did get international scorn, which was a very interesting experience. But less public was the wave of support I received in my inbox. It took me months to answer the more than 500 letters that came in thanking me.

Thank you everyone. I appreciate all your questions! Have a great weekend.