Teen Sex, Videos And The Law

A 14-year-old girl in Baltimore was recently videotaped performing a sexual act on a teen boy. The tape sparked heated debates about explicit online content, teen sexuality and social media. Host Michel Martin discusses the story with Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked; Malika Saada Saar, head of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights; and Brenda Joy Bernstein, a criminal attorney in private practice. ADVISORY: This conversation may not be comfortable for some listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We wanted to go behind closed doors, as we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues people usually keep private. Today, we want to talk about what was supposed to be a private act that has now been viewed thousands of times online.

And this is the point where I have to say that this conversation might not be appropriate for everybody because we are going to talk about the story involving a young girl and sex. A 14-year-old girl in Baltimore was videotaped performing oral sex on another teen, a boy. The tape went viral via Facebook, YouTube and other websites. The video was a top trend on Twitter.

Her very angry father has spoken to a local media outlet to say he thinks she was forced into the act and also to take those social media sites to task for failing to take the video down sooner.

The issue has brought some very heated discussions online and off, we dare say, about the kind of content that is available online, about parenting, about double standards around boys and girls and sexuality, about race; you name it. We wanted to talk more about some of these issues, so we've gathered a group of women who have unique perspectives about teen sexual behavior and the law and media.

Laura Sessions Stepp is the author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both." She's a longtime former staff writer for the Washington Post, where she covered these issues for many years.

Malika Saada Saar is the executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, which fights, among other things, against the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

And BJ Bernstein is a DEFENSE ATTORNEY in private practice. She represented Genarlow Wilson who as a teenager was sentenced to a long prison term for being videotaped in a consensual sexual act with a 15-year-old girl.

I welcome you all and I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

LAURA SESSIONS STEPP: Thanks for having me.

MALIKA SAADA SAAR: Thank you for having me.

BJ BERNSTEIN: Hello. It's good to talk about something so important.

MARTIN: So Laura, I'll start with you. And I'd just to ask. Actually, I'll ask each of you your reaction when you first heard this story or viewed whatever it is that you viewed of this story. Laura.

STEPP: Yeah. You know, 12 years ago, I wrote a story about an oral sex ring here in Northern Virginia, middle school, white, upper middle class girls and guys getting it on, so to speak. And they weren't the only ones. So the oral sex part of it has just been around with us for a while in all communities and all races and so forth.

What struck me about this was the video itself, watching. You know, back then - well, no. Fast forward a couple of years later. You'd get sexting and you'd get messages sent back and forth to each other, but to actually see it on a video, it takes this whole idea of oral sex and photographing that to a whole different level.

MARTIN: Well, just to remember - because I remember that story and there was a lot of anger at the story, as I recall.

STEPP: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: When you reported that these were middle school kids and it was almost like a competitive thing to perform oral sex on as many boys as possible and for as many boys to get as many girls to perform oral sex on them as possible.

STEPP: Right. They kept lists, lists of numbers. Yeah.

MARTIN: And the outrage was what?

STEPP: Well, first of all, the outrage was that the Washington Post put it on the front page and that they sort of blamed the messenger. That's always the first message. The principal was ultimately asked to leave the school.

MARTIN: BJ, I'll go to you because one of the points that Laura makes is, when she first starting reporting on this, that the videotaping, cell phone pictures and all that, that was not a part of it. The technology wasn't there. If it was, it was too expensive for kids that age to have. Now, it's widely available and the case that you were involved, it involved a consensual sex act at a party with some very serious consequences.

So what was your reaction when you saw it, or heard about this?

BERNSTEIN: It fits what I'm seeing when I go into schools and I talk to students a great deal and I say to them, you know, hold up your cell phone. That is a de facto evidence machine. They videotape it and they send it to one another and I have to try to drill in their heads - it is against the law. It is child pornography. Not only the people who are in the video, but just sending it along to the next person technically makes you guilty of a crime, although obviously, it's so rampant that we would cripple the criminal court system if we could actually pursue everyone.

You have to talk directly to the students and let them know that everything they tape, everything they record can and really may be used against them, not only in a criminal context, but for this young woman, as she gets older, if her real name ever gets out; it follows you a lifetime because of the tracking of social media.

MARTIN: Just to clarify one thing. We did reach out to the Baltimore City Police. They told us that none of the teens involved in the video has been charged or arrested, but they are investigating the act of videotaping. And I know that laws vary from place to place. But what would be the charge here?

BERNSTEIN: It would be some sort of sexual exploitation or a pornography charge.

MARTIN: Malika, and some people might be wondering why we called you, because your work involves the exploitation of people, people who are pushed into prostitution.

SAAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You know, girls who are abducted, girls who are essentially sex slaves. And they might say, what does that have to do with this conversation? These were all teenagers close in age, this is an apparently consensual act, but it still concerns you. Tell me why.

SAAR: My first concern is how the judgment around this act focused on the girl, not the boy in the sexual act and not the boys who did the videotaping. And so I think it's very much about this what is called Lolita Effect, that we hypersexualize our very young girls and then we turn around and call them whores. And I see this in a more extreme manifestation around girls who are sexually exploited and trafficked, where we, we don't see them as victims of child rape, we don't see them as victims of child abuse; instead we see them as bad girls who have made bad choices. And when law enforcement becomes involved, it's not the buyer of the girl who is arrested or even the trafficker of the girl, it's the girl herself who is usually put behind bars.

MARTIN: Well, that doesn't seem to be the case here and nobody's talking about prosecuting this girl. But do you think there is someone to be sanctioned here or someone or some entity to be sanctioned here? As we said, the father is very angry. He says that she was bullied into this. And he's also, of course, very angry at the social media sites. I don't know whether she was bullied into this or forced into this act or not, but is there someone to be sanctioned here, and who?

SAAR: Those individuals who did the videotaping. And I think it plays into a larger culture that says it is okay to objectify very young girls as sexual objects. It is okay to say that very young girls are sexually available. I mean we have push-up bras for 10-year-olds and thongs for seven-year-olds. There is a gathering culture that without question hypersexualizes very young girls.

MARTIN: So you're saying that you think those boys should be prosecuted?

SAAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But BJ, what about that? Because one of the issues that you had in the case of Jenelle Wilson is that those boys are all very close in age and they're teenagers themselves.

BERNSTEIN: Right.

MARTIN: So tell me, how do you react to that?

BERNSTEIN: Well, I think that we don't know the exact context of this. Young women and young men at this age participate consensually in these acts, and the videotaping they all do. And so to immediately say it's the boys that need to be prosecuted, I don't think we know in this particular instance. In the broader situation, it is in general deciding how we're going to teach and try to manage sexuality at a younger and younger age than we all believe it should happen. And I had a friend, when I told her I was on my way over here, she was telling me a story about 13-year-olds in the car and she's driving them to cheerleading practice and they were talking about doing a sexual act on an older boy and laughing about it.

There is some disconnect and there are going to have to be conversations among everyone that everyone is to blame regardless of gender in the way the world is now. I mean obviously I think your - I agree that the media and music videos, film, everything, the way women are objectified and at a very young age - you know, you're listening to a Katy Perry song and, you know, you're eight years old and you're singing in a way and don't even know what you're saying. We have to actually tell them what they're saying and we're going to have to talk to them and say, okay, that coupled with the self-esteem issue, which when I have my clients come in my office constantly, I find, and trying so much to want to belong and doing something that deep down they may be uncomfortable with, male and female, believe it or not.

MARTIN: Well, that was my question though, BJ, is that you represent both young men and young women who have been sexually exploited.

BERNSTEIN: Right.

MARTIN: Okay? So the question I have for you is, is it just young girls who are being...

BERNSTEIN: Yeah...

MARTIN: And if it isn't just young girls, and can we say that these boys share, bore the greater burden of responsibility for knowing what was right and what was wrong? Does that make sense as a question?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I think so. I mean...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

BERNSTEIN: I think that it depends on the boy. I mean there are some boys who definitely had a predilection towards, you know, being a predator and a bully and overpowering and maybe leading to a life of domestic violence, which is a very serious issue in our society. And I think some of these early things that we're seeing lead to that kind of behavior. But the flip side of it is there is pressure on them, the younger, the less part of the crowd that they're in that they start engaging in things, pressured and trying to fit in and having the same self-esteem issues. Normally, you have to get to the boys to protect the girls and so, you know, it's got to be education and inclusion of all the focus on both groups and not just one or the other.

MARTIN: We're going behind closed doors. We're talking about a recent story about a 14-year-old girl who was videotaped in a sexual act. To our knowledge, it was a consensual sex act. But the video was then widely distributed online. And we're talking about the consequences of that and why that might have happened.

We're talking with BJ Bernstein; she's a criminal attorney who has - in private practice - who has represented a number of young people involved in cases that were, touched on matters of sexual exploitation. Also with us, Malika Saada Saar, she's executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, and she also works with vulnerable women and girls, many of whom are also involved in matters of sexual exploitation. And Laura Sessions Stepp, the author of "Unhooked."

Just another data point. Just about a quarter of 15-year-olds have had oral sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So Laura, that, the question then, is it that kids don't see oral sex as having, as sex?

STEPP: Yes. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: They don't...

STEPP: But it's not - it's not.

MARTIN: They don't?

STEPP: They do not see it.

MARTIN: And that a new attitude or is that an attitude that we've seen for a while?

STEPP: No, that's been true for 12 to 15 years. It's the grown-ups who have been way behind the eight ball on this one.

MARTIN: BJ, can I ask you though about the aspect - the videotaping aspect of it that we talked about. Is the - do the young people with whom you've worked, do they not see this as a big deal?

BERNSTEIN: I don't think they necessarily see it as wrong. I mean this is the generation that likes to post, express, put everything out there for everyone to see, and is enamored with video and photographs. And then add into it that there is intoxicant, you know, they're drinking usually, they're smoking pot usually when they're doing this. All sense is out the window.

MARTIN: Malika, can I ask you this whole question of...

SAAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And then I want to move toward where you'd like to see the discussion going after - this is our, for our last go-round. But as we mentioned earlier, the father says he feels very strongly that she was bullied into this or that she was kind of coerced into this. I don't know that there's any evidence that she was physically forced into this position, which has happened. But what if it's this gray area, where she felt that that was something that she needed to do to be cool or belong? Does that change your view of it?

SAAR: No. Again, because I think my question here was the issue of how we judge her. But I think what's also important to lift up here is that we are in a period of this hypersexualization of very young girls and we have to start to talk about the impact that it has on the girls themselves. And increasingly, they are told through popular culture that their place of power and worth is in their sexualization. And...

MARTIN: More so now than before?

SAAR: Indeed. And really interesting research is coming forward in terms of what's the impact of that on girls. And what we're seeing is that girls have higher levels of anorexia, eating disorder, emotional developmental issues because of this type of over-sexualization. And so again, I think we really have to talk about it from a place of what are we doing to girls around the impact of over-sexualization.

MARTIN: So I'd like to ask in the minute that we have left, where do you want this conversation to go? What do you want to see happen? And, I don't know, Malika, do you want to start? And also, you're also an attorney, as Laura and I are not, but you are as well as BJ, so if you want to bring up the legal aspects of how you think the legal system should treat this, I'd be interested in your perspective as well.

SAAR: This is an important conversation to have outside of the courtroom. And again, going back to how do we honor our girls, and if there is this push towards sexualization, that how do we allow our girls to know their place of power outside of that, and how do we make sure that in these situations it is not the Lolita Effect.

MARTIN: Okay, but I have to push this - Malika, forgive me for pushing this point, but I think the parents of a lot of young boys today would say that girls are sexually aggressive too. And if they are willing participants in this kind of action, why do you feel that the greater burden should fall on the boys?

SAAR: I don't. I just don't think - I just think we should question why in this situation was there the disproportional judgment on the girl and not both the girl and the boy?

MARTIN: But the legal system is attaching greater consequence to the boys. See what I'm saying. What we're talking about here is one thing, but what the legal system is prepared to do is quite another.

SAAR: Right. But I think if the folks who did the videotaping were girls, the same thing should be true of what happens to them. In the same case where a young boy who was involved in - a young gay boy who was involved in a sexual act and then committed suicide because he found out that that sexual act was videotaped by a young man and woman, both the young man and woman were held correctly responsible for that act and that was considered to be a criminal act.

MARTIN: That case is working its way through the courts. But I do take your point. BJ?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, you know, the answer, unfortunately, I think the criminal justice system is overwhelmed on so many different levels that - and it is absolutely ill-equipped to deal with the explosion of younger and younger sexuality. And so again, it goes into parents and schools dealing with at a younger and younger age group, not just sexual conversation but also just this issue of self-respect. And I appreciate what's being said about the young women, but I think also there is an incredible amount of pressure on boys to be sexualized earlier and earlier, which also, you know, ties into the bullying problem, really. We just don't spend enough time with them to get them to realize that they have something to lose in this as well, and that may change their actions.

MARTIN: Laura, final thought from you?

STEPP: We are rightfully concerned with what goes on outside our home. But most of your listeners what they can do is what's inside their home. If there's a mother and a father, how does the father treat the daughter? And how do those kids see their mother and father treating each other? If it's a divorce situation, how do they see still the parents, now divorced, treating each other? When did they start talking about that? In the end, what we can do most about is what happens within our four walls.

MARTIN: Laura Sessions Stepp is the author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both." Malika Saada Saar is the executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, which advocates for vulnerable women and girls. Both were here with us in our studio in Washington, D.C. And BJ Bernstein is an attorney in private practice. She has had a number of cases where she's represented young people who were in sexually exploitive situations. She joined us from member station WABE in Atlanta. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Thanks, Michel.

STEPP: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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