As soon as he woke up the next morning, Phillip Alpert knew that he had made a huge mistake. Angry that he was unable to get the attention of his ex-girlfriend, the then-18-year-old Florida teen arose from a sleeping-pill-induced stupor at 3 a.m. and forwarded some sexually explicit images that she had given him to everyone on his distribution list as a means of getting a reaction.
When he was arrested on child-pornography charges and ordered to register as a sex offender a short time later, Alpert quickly learned that sexting has very real consequences, ones the teen could never have imagined.
"Sexting cases are unusual and few and far between these days, and they don't fit into any particular category or set of standards," said Lawrence Walters, Alpert's lawyer, who has taken on the now-20-year-old's case pro bono, in part to help publicize the issue. "Usually police, prosecutors, judges and lawyers default to treating them as child-pornography cases, and the knee-jerk reaction is to have them register as sex offenders, which ruins their lives."
While Walters said Alpert quickly realized how wrong his behavior was, he stressed that sexting between underage parties (who are, essentially, both victim and perpetrator) is a very different thing than an adult exploiting a child by making them participate in pornographic photos or films in which they are unwilling participants.
"Society is starting to recognize that maybe this is something different, a phenomenon we haven't dealt with before, but currently they're doing it in the worst way possible, by lumping these kids in with pedophiles and molesters," said Walters, who is pushing for the legal system to come up with a new means of dealing with sexting cases among minors. "[They're being punished for] doing things kids have done for time immemorial: playing doctor, truth or dare and exploring their sexuality with each other. We just happen to have given them the tools to create digital copies to record them and send them around easily."
Alpert tells his story in "Sexting in America: When Privates Go Public," a 30-minute special airing Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on MTV, in which we take a closer look at the dangers of sexting and the serious repercussions for the people who send and receive naked pictures of peers on their mobile phones and other devices.
In Alpert's case, after being arrested for child-pornography distribution, he was put on five years' probation and required to register on the public sex-offender list, which lists his age, hair color, eye color and home address and is readily available to anyone and everyone. "I've actually had a lot of neighbors come to my door before ... to check if it was safe for their kids to play around outside, with me here," Alpert says in the show. "I'm extremely sorry for what I did, but the sex-offender thing, which is going to last until I'm 43, that's overkill."
Images taken of someone under the age of 18 constitutes child pornography, according to Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer. "If you take a picture, you can be accused of producing child pornography; if you send it to somebody, you can be accused of distributing child pornography; and if you keep a picture, you can be accused of possessing child pornography," Aftab explained. "Anywhere along this chain of transmission of the images, you can be charged as a registered sex offender.'
Walters said Alpert's message is not that sexting is OK or should be decriminalized, but rather, "Look at me. Don't make the mistake I did." Perhaps the worst part is that Alpert's dream of being an animator has been dashed because of the tight restrictions placed on his Internet use as a registered sex offender. "He can't live within a certain distance of schools, so he can't live with his father, because he lives too close to the high school that [Phillip] attended," the lawyer explained. "He can't be near places where minors congregate, but if you're 18 and have underage friends, what do you do?"
Because of his lack of privacy, Alpert is afraid to even send his lawyer e-mail, because if his probation officer decides that the e-mail was not work- or school-related, Alpert could go to prison for five years. "He can't find a job, because he has to tell people he's a registered sex offender," Walter said. "It's hard to make new friends and date."
But perhaps the worst punishment is the requirement that Alpert attend weekly sex-offender re-education classes for five years.
"Here, he's being trained not to reoffend and deal with his pedophilia or sexual deviance, which does not exist," Walters said. "He's stuck with people who did terrible things with minors, and he's forced to tell his story over and over again and can't move beyond it. For a 19- to 20-year-old kid, that's not a healthy thing. The more he does this and the longer he goes to these classes, the more he concludes, 'I guess I am one of them. I must have done something so horrible to be considered like the dregs of society.' It has a terrible impact on his self-worth."
The MTV News special "Sexting in America: When Privates Go Public," premieres Sunday, February 14, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.