Sexting is the taking and sharing of nude or sexually explicit photos by computer or cell phone. While some states have enacted laws to deal specifically with teen sexting, North Carolina has not. In many states, including North Carolina, when sexting involves images of children under the age of 18, it violates state laws against child pornography, and teens can be prosecuted under laws intended to punish adult sex offenders.
Sexting has many other consequences aside from illegality. First, images can easily be forwarded, shared, or posted online. Once photos are on the Internet, they can be difficult to remove and this can cause lasting damage to a teen’s reputation. Second, teens whose private images are shared can be humiliated or bullied, or become depressed. In some cases, teenagers have hurt themselves. Third, students involved in sexting can get in trouble at school and children as young as eighth graders have been suspended.
In North Carolina, it is a crime (called sexual exploitation of a minor) to possess an image of a child under the age of 18 engaged in sexual activity. Sexual activity is broadly defined to include touching of any private part of the body or any display of the genitals. It is a more serious crime to record, photograph, or duplicate nude or explicit images of children, or to distribute child pornography. It is also a crime to persuade or encourage a child under the age of 18 to engage in sexual activity for the purpose of a live performance or the creation of pornography. For example, a 17-year-old who takes cell phone pictures of his 16-year-old girlfriend naked could be convicted of recording child pornography and, if he coaxed her into posing for the photos, perhaps even encouraging a child to make pornography.
(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 14-190.13, 14-190.16, 14-190.17A, 14-190.17.)
It is also a crime under North Carolina’s laws for a person to model, pose for, or photograph anyone (including him or herself) for the purpose of making an obscene photograph or movie. Any depiction of sexual conduct or nudity may be considered obscene. For example, a teenage girl who allows herself to be photographed engaging in oral sex could be convicted of making an obscene photograph. It also is a crime in North Carolina for anyone over the age of 18 to disseminate (sell, furnish, present, or distribute) to a child under the age of 16 any obscene material, such as pornography.
(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 14-190.1, 14-190.5, 14-190.7.)
Disseminating Material Harmful to Minors
It is also a crime in North Carolina to disseminate to a child under the age of 18 any material that is harmful to minors. Any depiction of nudity or sexual activity could be considered harmful to a minor. So, an adult who sends a sexual self-portrait to a child could be prosecuted under this law, or for disseminating obscenity to a minor, or for both crimes.
(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 14-190.13, 14-190.15.)
Punishment in North Carolina varies based on the class of the offense, the defendant’s prior criminal record (if any), and the facts of the particular crime. In addition to imprisonment, the court may also impose a fine in any amount it deems appropriate.
Possession of child pornography is a Class H felony, punishable by four to 25 months’ imprisonment. Recording or distributing child pornography is a Class E felony, which can result in a sentence of 15 to 63 months in prison. Encouraging a child to make pornography is a Class C felony, punishable by 44 to 182 months in prison. Disseminating obscene material to a child under the age of 16 is a Class I felony, punishable by three to 12 months in prison. Disseminating material that is harmful to minors and making obscene photographs are Class 1 misdemeanors, punishable by up to 120 days in jail.
(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 14-190.5, 14-190.7, 14-190.15, 14-190.16, 14-190.17A, 14-190.17.)
Sex Offender Registration
People who are convicted of child pornography are required to register as sex offenders under North Carolina’s laws. A person who is required to register as a sex offender and fails to do so can be convicted of a felony.
(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 14-208.6, 14-208.7.)