The XX Factor

An Iowa Prosecutor Might Charge a Teen With Sex Crimes for Taking a Selfie in Her Underwear

Texting a suggestive photo of oneself is not “sexual exploitation of a minor.”


An Iowa county prosecutor has threatened to charge a 14-year-old girl with “sexual exploitation of a minor” for taking two suggestive photos of herself and sending them to a male classmate. The girl, who’s using the name Nancy Doe, texted one photo of herself wearing a sports bra and boy shorts, and one without the bra but with her hair hiding her breasts.

Now, her family is suing Marion County Attorney Ed Bull to prevent him from moving forward with the charges. A lawsuit filed on Sept. 28 accuses Bull of “retaliation” against Doe and her family for asserting their First and 14th Amendment rights and asks for a permanent injunction against any criminal charges he might bring.

Police got wind of Doe’s photos in March, when school officials caught two Knoxville High School boys printing out sexual and suggestive photos of fellow students, allegedly taken from texts and Snapchat, on school printers. Some of the photos depicted naked teens with emojis over their genitals, but Doe’s didn’t expose anything that needed censoring. School administrators notified law enforcement officials, and soon a court officer summoned the teens in the photos along with their parents to a meeting at the county courthouse.

There, Bull allegedly said that he was considering pressing charges against the teens—Doe’s family alleges there were more than 30 of them—for sexual exploitation and possession of child pornography; if they were convicted, they’d have to enter the sex offender registry for life. According to Doe’s lawsuit, Bull told the teens that he wouldn’t file charges if they admitted they were guilty to the court, gave up their laptops and phones for a probation period, took a class on sexting consequences, and completed the community service requirements of a pretrial diversion program. The Does opted not to attend the meeting, and Nancy did not accept Bull’s offer. He’s said he’ll continue with the charges if she and her parents don’t change their minds.

But Bull must know these charges wouldn’t hold up in court. Iowa law defines “sexual exploitation of a minor” in terms of “prohibited sexual acts” and simulation of those acts, which include genital touching, bestiality, sadomasochistic abuse, nudity for the purpose of arousal, oral sex, anal sex, and vaginal sex. Doe’s photos depicted none of these. As her lawsuit notes, prosecuting her for these photos would be as absurd as prosecuting her parents for taking a picture of her in a bikini, which would reveal exactly the same number of body parts the law deems too private to text: zero.

Marking Doe as a sex offender for “exploiting” herself would be a ludicrous perversion of a law meant to protect teens like her from predatory abusers. The only exploitation in this case was perpetrated by the boy who shared the photos she sent him in confidence and the students who printed them out to pass around. Sexting can be a healthy way for teens to explore their sexuality. It’s not a problem until the recipient exploits the sender’s body and betrays her trust by showing her photos to others—then, it’s harassment or abuse. Blaming someone who texted a sexy picture for her own abuse is unjust and antithetical to the spirit of sex crime laws.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials who criminalize consensual expressions of teen sexuality are doing their jobs wrong. Bull is using his position of power to bully teen girls—some of the students in the photos were males, but victims of sext-shaming and privacy violations are almost always girls—into some subjective idea of highly regulated chastity. The Doe’s lawsuit claims that Bull “slut-shamed” the young women who attended the courthouse meeting by telling them that “young ladies did not send such explicit photos to boys.” Bull can believe whatever he wants about the do’s and don’t’s of young-lady behavior, and he is free to lecture his own offspring about them. But a courtroom is not the place for him to hash out his misgivings about sexting with a young woman’s future hanging in the balance.