Issue 110, Summer 2009

by JoAnn Wypijewski

Taking nude pictures of yourself — nothing good can come of it.

— Police Capt. George Seranko, Greensburg, Pennsylvania

Captain Seranko made his observation after three girls and three boys at Greensburg Salem High School were charged with child pornography. The girls, ages 14 and 15, are charged with taking pictures of themselves, nude or seminude; the boys, 15, 16 and 17, with receiving them. The cellphone in which these dangerous images were lodged had been confiscated at school, not an outrageous exercise of authority if school officials had merely stashed the phone in a drawer. But the officials had to snoop. One can picture their fevered actions, fumbling with the student’s phone … scouring through the teen’s pictures and messages, expectant that their suspicions will be confirmed, certain that all they want is to protect the children… And yet, there they are, instant oglers, prying into places not meant for them, gazing at images not made for them, drenching the relationship between school authority and student in sex.

The recent attention to teen “sexting” has focused quite a lot on the presumed selfexploitation of kids, not so much on the prurient reflex of grown-ups who spy on and punish them. It has dwelt quite a lot on the traps of technology, not so much on the desires that precede picking up a camera. Quite a lot on the question of whether the teens are sex offenders or merely stupid, sluttish or mean, not so much on the freedom to see and be. Quite a lot on the legal meaning of images, not so much on the ways in which making them might delight, or on the cultural freakout that colors law, images and how they are perceived.

Across the state from where Captain Seranko was discoursing on nude photographs, District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. was threatening sixteen girls and four boys with felony charges. Officials at Tunkhannock Area High School had confiscated phones, discovered about 100 photos and called the DA, who told reporters that the kids could face seven years in prison. In February, Skumanick convened parents to say that their kids were involved in a child porn investigation but could avoid being nailed by submitting to a ten-hour re-education program … and agreeing to an “informal adjustment,” in effect a guilty plea before judgment in the juvie system, which would put them on probation for at least six months and subject them to random drug tests. If the kids get in trouble while on probation, they could end up with a juvenile record of the sex offense.

All but three families submitted to the DA’s coercion. One father complained that his daughter was pictured simply wearing a bathing suit; Skumanick called the image “provocative,” and she is being re-educated, writing a report on “Why it was wrong” to pose in her bathing suit, answering, “How did [it] affect the victim? The school? The community?” and learning “what it means to be a girl in today’s society.”

DA Skumanick only seems bizarre; in fact, he and school officials are doing what judges and juries in child porn cases have been doing for years, lingering over images, searching for signs of the erotic or proto-erotic, pondering What if? Maybe so? One might think… and welding the child to sex. But what of the teenagers…who mean to be sexy, for their boyfriend, their girlfriend, themselves? There is nothing new about teenagers having sex and taking pictures, or indulging in fantasy as a substitute; nothing new about the mixed thrill of having a secret and risking exposure, or sharing that “secret,” sometimes clumsily. The new means of production carries pitfalls as surely as the fleeting passions of a teenager. The rude boy documenting a girl going down on him unawares to share behind her back with his MySpace buddies will always be with us, but her problem, and his too, started before the shutter clicked. The girl who has mastered the nude self-portrait may later regret its mass circulation, but she may also have got comfortable in her skin while taking pictures. Maybe the Polaroid Land Camera should make a comeback, but it is just possible that the 15-year-olds are envisioning, however inchoately, a saner world than the one the grown-ups lecturing them have constructed, one where their life chances won’t be ruined by a “compromising” photograph on the Internet. If sexting really is as common as is claimed, it’s more likely to proliferate than to abate, and then the issue won’t be scandal or embarrassment but banality.

The truth is, a lot of good can come of taking nude pictures. Not so much the image as the act, and less the act of sex than the play of love, or imagination or freedom among friends. Remember play? Remember dalliance? Remember the captured glimpse of a lover stripped and weak with need? Grown-ups, don’t get comfortable. A bill in the Massachusetts Legislature proposes to criminalize nude pictures of people over 60 and people who are disabled, for their own protection. Excerpt from “Through a Lens Starkly” By JoAnn Wypijewski This piece originally appeared in The Nation.

The full text is available here:  Copyright held by JoAnn Wypijewski ([email protected]), reprinted with permission from the author.