In an episode of the TV comedy series Arrested Development, Tobias Funkë accidentally takes a picture of his genitals with a borrowed mobile phone.
The picture makes its way to a federal prosecutor’s office and finally into the hands of the FBI and the CIA, where it is mistaken for a satellite photograph of Iraq.
Through a careful analysis of the geography of wrinkles and moles, the US Military confirms the locations of several Weapons of Mass Destruction. A massive invasion and attack plan is prepared. Air, sea, and ground forces are mobilized.
Meanwhile, Tobias is watching the TV news. The map on which the government is basing their invasion is displayed on the screen. Tobias is shocked. He glances down at his groin, then says in dismay: “I’m on… TV…”
Originally aired on December 12, 2004, this is possibly the earliest recorded incident of sexting.
And it’s a humorous example of a common outcome of the practice: unintended public display of one’s nether regions.
Sexting, short for sex texting, is a term used to describe the act of sharing erotic messages and images via mobile phone.
A large US survey last year identified that about 20% of teens aged 13 to 19 have sexted a nude or semi-nude photo of themselves.
Over a third of young adults aged 20-26 have done the same.
Remarkably, sexting participants engage with the full understanding that the content they share might not remain private.
Photographs and videos that are initially delivered in confidence are frequently distributed to other people. They are often published online at social media sites like Facebook, where they gain a more permanent and public status.
18-year-old Vanessa Hudgens, of Disney’s High School Musical fame, was busted a couple of years ago when some nude pictures she’d sent to her ex-boyfriend became fodder for the tabloids.
More recently pop singers Rihanna and Cassie Ventura were publicly revealed to be avid sexters.
Despite the fact that it’s an age-old tradition for teenagers to explore the taboo of sexuality, American backlash against sexting has been severe.
Many teens have been charged under child pornography laws for distributing nude or semi-nude photos of themselves.
Pennsylvania prosecutors in one such case explained that they were penalizing a trio of 14- and 15-year old girls to send a strong message to other minors about the dangers of sexting.
This reaction is counter-productive. Making an act illegal to teens just increases the thrill of committing it.
Besides, sexting is more a social and a cultural issue, not a legal one.
Sexting is an evolution in how young people are learning to express themselves emotionally and sexually.
Each generation invents a new way to explore these confusing aspects of their lives, and sexting is the natural response of a technology-endowed age group.
In fact, sexting isn’t even the problem. Rather, it’s how the content is eventually misused.
Instead of battling the earnest intentions of teens and young adults, it’s more sensible to enable them to safely practice sexting through a combination of education and enhanced technology.
Messaging methodologies like MMS, IM, and even email could offer ways to “time bomb” content so that it expired and self-destructed after, say, a single viewing.
A University of Washington team of computer scientists recently introduced a system called Vanish that does just this. After a set period of time, whatever is posted to to the internet using Vanish simply dissolves like a sketch in the sand at high tide.
Encryption technologies could be leveraged to tie images to particular hardware or software environments like just the cell phone of your boyfriend. If an image were removed from that device it would self-corrupt.
Even before a technological solution is introduced, though, education and advertising should work to build a deeper moral and ethical understanding in young people of the risks in distributing private images and messages.
Honolulu high school teacher Miri Sumida, for example, is experimenting with mobile phones in-class. She is experiencing great success as students collaboratively craft appropriate mobile phone etiquette under her guidance.
Fortunately, no illicit sext pics have yet set off any international incidents of the scale inspired by Tobias’ scrotum.
But to a family, one misplaced homemade nudie pic can impact the household like a weapon of mass destruction. Sexting needs some supporting education and technology to help its willing participants ensure their private conduct remains top secret.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 24, 2009.