The photos show three naked, under-age girls, sprawled in front of the camera. The public prosecutor in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, deemed this to be child pornography, and arrested the perpetrators. And the victims. Because in this case the victims and the perpetrators are one and the same. The fourteen-year-old girls took photos of themselves with their mobile phones, and, presumably intoxicated by the effect of their new feminine charms, then sent the pictures to a few male friends from high school. There, one of the pupils had his mobile phone confiscated by a teacher, who discovered the photos and alerted the police. Now both the girls and the boys have been charged with disseminating and possessing child pornography.
This case just goes to show that digital media are changing the way young people discover their own sexual desire. Puberty is cruel. Like a force of nature, young people's bodies are flooded with hormones. Which is why rebellion and voyages of sexual discovery have always gone hand-in-hand. It's just that now technology expands the field for experimentation. One in five American teenagers sends photos or videos of themself naked, normally to their boyfriend or girlfriend. They are making use of the tools provided by technology to let their peers know that they're on their way to becoming sexually active. While young boys used to flick through their fathers' copies of "Playboy", today they watch porn films on the Internet. And where girls used to try on their mothers' bras, now they re-enact the striptease films they have seen on TV, and chat with people who could quite possibly turn out to be perverts. Somehow or other these teens have to enter the jungle of adulthood.
So the initiation rites still exist, it's just that today's teenagers have a very different idea of what privacy means, having grown up with the exhibitionist Internet culture of blogs, YouTube and MySpace. They have seen how the casting candidates on "Real World" sleep together while the cameras are rolling. Why, then, should a girl get worked up about a topless shot doing the rounds at her school?
But all this is not without its dangers. Boys used to brag about the hot scout leader they had pulled, whereas now they send photographic evidence to their mates: starring themselves and their girlfriends as porn stars. If these end up in the wrong hands, there is a danger of humiliation and blackmail. That is where things turn nasty.
But punishable? It's not these teenagers on their semi-public voyages of sexual discovery who are the perverted ones. What is perverted is our porn culture, which both encourages and prohibits at the same time.