TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers acknowledged Monday what teenagers know best: "sexting," as inappropriate as it seems, is not child pornography.
A measure to decriminalize the first offense of sexting — in which teenagers trade sexually explicit images via cell phones and social-networking sites — won initial approval in a House committee.
"This, I believe, will protect our children," said state Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, a Wellington Democrat who sponsored the bill. "We shouldn't be labeling our children sexual predators from this type of behavior."
The measure (HB 1335) separates this new form of digital intimacy from the harsh punishments of child pornography laws, but it does criminalize subsequent offenses.
A teenager caught sending or possessing an explicit self-portrait of another minor faces eight hours of community service for the first offense, while the second time is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail.
On a fourth offense, a teenager faces five years in prison, a third-degree felony. But lawmakers did give leeway, saying images sent within a 24-hour period count as only one offense.
"This will prevent teens from getting a bad rap sheet," said Rep. Bill Heller, a St. Petersburg Democrat who supported the bill. "But I think at some point someone has to take some accountability and responsibility for their behavior."
The legislation reflects a national movement to address a troubling element of a teenage cyberculture but also the recognizes that a 14-year-old girl caught sending an image to her teenage boyfriend is not a hardened criminal.
A year ago, three Pennsylvania teenage girls were charged with felonies for sending images of themselves to their boyfriends. A recent national study showed one in five teenagers have sent sexy text messages with photos.
"I think the culture is terrified by teen sexuality and comes down hard on teens for being sexual," said Jean Kilbourne, the co-author of So Sexy So Soon, a book about the increasingly sexualized childhood.
Kilbourne suggests it's hard to blame teenagers, given the influences from pop culture and advertising. "They grow up surrounded by these images — the mainstreaming of pornography," she said. "Girls are just encouraged to present themselves as porn stars."
The cases of two Florida teens who were sexting brought widespread attention to the issue.
In 2007, Phillip Alpert, an 18-year-old from Orlando, e-mailed a nude photo of his 16-year-old girlfriend to dozens of people and her parents, leading him to get five years of probation and be registered as a sex offender. And in 2009, a 13-year-old Ruskin girl named Hope Witsell committed suicide days after a nude photo she sent to a boy she liked was distributed among students at Beth Shields Middle School and Lennard High School.
"Sexting is a part of cyberbullying," said Robin Rose, the executive director of the Ophelia Project & Boys Initiative, a Tampa nonprofit that focuses on youth development. "They want to be sexy and this is what happens."
The legislation would not help those like Alpert, who turn 18 and become adults in the eyes of the law. And legislators admit that it's difficult to police teenage experimentation in a digital era, but they agree that teenagers need room to make a mistake.
"There is a recognition that teenagers have a tendency to be impulsive," said Rep. Kevin Ambler, a Tampa Republican who supported the bill, which must be heard in two more committees before it gets to the House floor. "They've grown up on the Internet, and shooting something to someone real fast they do without thinking."