Several years ago, when my son was a newly minted teenager, I discovered, on accident, that he was receiving nude pictures from a young lady at his school. I would have never believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes, and sadly: I did.
I was looking through his cellphone in an attempt to figure out why he wasn't receiving group texts when a text message came in from a young lady that included a picture. On the top of his phone, there was a flash of vulva followed by the words “I’m wet.”
My husband was sitting nearby but didn't see what I had. I stared at him and made a weird noise.
“What?" he asked. I explained what I saw but told him not to look. It didn't seem appropriate to show him a picture of a minor's genitalia. But that didn't stop me from searching through my son's phone to see what had been going on between them.
It turned out this young lady, who was a few months shy of turning 18, was the only one sending pictures. My son, who at the time was barely 13, didn’t seem to know what to do with the pictures and messages, because his usual reply to her was “Wow” or “Nice,” with the occasional “Mmmm.”
This girl was apparently stringing along a steady boyfriend in her own grade while promising my son, a freshman in high school, that she loved him the most. She played the needy, clingy sex-nymph character as if it were a script, written just for her.
I read my husband the texts and felt Mama Bear kick in full-force.
When we finally confronted my son, we could see he was horrified, but he also felt very attached to this girl, swearing he was “in love with her.” It turned out that after school, the two would often walk home together, stopping in the park to make out passionately before parting ways.
I knew it would be near impossible to keep them from one another, especially since they saw each other every day at school and rode the same (and only) bus.
There was one more complication. The girl’s father was one of my husband’s bosses — a really mean one, too.
It was a unique, delicate situation that required discretion. We didn’t want to create a bigger problem by disclosing what had been found. But we also didn’t want our son to communicate with that girl any longer.
I knew telling my son and the young lady to stay away from one another wouldn’t work. They might nod and agree, then secretly continue to meet and exchange messages. It’s what I did as a kid and what many teenagers do. I had to find a way to scare them enough to keep them apart, but keep the upper hand so that they would maintain their distance.
I decided to do some research, looking up the laws for child pornography in our state. I printed and highlighted two copies, and told my son to call the girl and tell her to come over to our house.
When she sat down, I introduced myself and my husband, and I handed her and my son the highlighted state laws. I asked them to read them quietly and let me know when they were done.
When they finished reading, I explained that I had discovered the text messages and pictures that she was sending our son, and that according to the laws, they constituted distribution and possession of child pornography. I explained to both of them that even though they are minors, it was still illegal, and I pointed out the penalties for such crimes.
Both kids looked terrified (as they should have).
Then I said to the young lady, “Since you are very close to turning 18, any sexual contact you have with my son can be reported as abuse. I will not hesitate to call the police and file a report against you. If you were to be convicted, you would be a registered sexual offender.”
At the time, we were living in Virginia, and the state laws were clear: Any possession of pornographic images of a person under 18 years of age was considered a Class 6 felony, making them eligible for a prison sentence of five to 30 years. In the Commonwealth, no distinction was made between adults and minors who possessed pornography, meaning teens who sexted were committing serious crimes.
She looked down at her hands and almost cried.
I asked the young lady to promise me she would no longer communicate with my son in any way, and in return, I would not tell her parents or call the police. She readily and happily agreed. She also apologized profusely. I told her that she had the potential to have a great life, but making choices like this could do more harm than she could imagine. I encouraged her to think twice about sending nude images via text or email because they live forever on the Internet and may cause her embarrassment in the future.
Before she left, I gave her a hug and wished her well. It wasn't easy — but I felt it was the right thing to do.
As punishment, my son lost his phone and Internet access for six months, and when his privileges were reinstated, they came with the caveat that we have every password to every account, and would regularly monitor his interactions.
Thankfully, the young woman moved away shortly after her 18th birthday and, as promised, never contacted my son again — except to leave one note in his locker that said, "You have a really nice mom. I’m sorry for getting us in trouble. I’m glad we met and I’ll miss you, but we have to do what’s right. Take care.”
In the end we learned something important: Keep a level head when you find your child has engaged in something as serious as sexting. Also, use the laws to your advantage. While our method of dealing with this sensitive subject may not have been ideal (I realize that now) it was the best way we felt we could handle it at the time. Whatever you do, make sure you prioritize your child’s safety above all else. And while you’re at it, you may want to check their phones now and then.
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