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My boyfriend wants naked pictures of me: should I do it?

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MelissaDV asks:

Me and my boyfriend have been together for 9 months. I'm 17 and he's 22. Everything is going great! We never really fight and my family likes him, too, which is rare. Only problem is he travels a lot for work, he will be gone for 2 weeks at at time. I don't mind, but he asked me to help make his trip better...he wanted me to take nude pictures of myself. I said I would but only because I do love and care about him a lot and thought it would be good for the both of us. But I HATE pictures as it is...I tried to take them for him but I HATE every picture I take and it makes me feel even more self-conscious than I do already. I would rather walk around naked for him all day then take pictures of myself. I know it sounds stupid, but it's just really hard for me. I trust him and know he wouldn't do anything with those pictures but it's hard explaining to him why I don't like pictures, he doesn't get it...should I just suck it up and take em?

Heather Corinna replies:

Do I think you should just suck it up, take these photos and share them? No. First and foremost because, depending on the content and level of nudity, doing so could be as consequentially serious as a felony on both of your parts. So it's clear right from the start and in a way you can't miss it: I would STRONGLY advise you against doing this solely because of the potentially grave legal consequences.

I jumped on your question as soon as I could in the hopes of getting you this information before you did this, but in the case you already have, do yourself a favor and erase those photos, unless you ONLY want and intend to keep them for yourself. And then explain what I'm about to explain to you to your boyfriend, who should then have no trouble "getting it."

In the United States and many other countries, creating and distributing nude photos of yourself at your age, and/or adults asking you to create those images for their use, is illegal. And sometimes not like, jaywalking-illegal, parking in a handicapped space-illegal, drinking underage-illegal or juvenile delinquint-illegal (which has been the charge sometimes applied to minors doing this). By federal law, because you are under the age of majority, any of those photographs could be considered child pornography. That is BIG TIME ILLEGAL, again, potentially as much as felony illegal -- which can be as much as life in prison -- especially on his part. Potentially sex offender registry-illegal for him. Big, bad juju-illegal. Even if something like this is discovered and neither one of you winds up being charged with anything, I've little doubt you probably don't want everyone at your school and in your community reading about a legal investigation into the naked pictures you made and sent. That can be really debilitating.

I've absolutely no doubt you had and have no intent to create child pornography (likely in part because you don't think of yourself as a child), and might even have a hard time picturing what you were trying to create as being child pornography or pornography at all. However, if what your boyfriend asked for and what you were trying to make were fully nude or in any way sexually suggestive or explicit pictures (as opposed to say, photos of you in a swimsuit at the beach with friends) for the purpose of his sexual entertainment (not for the purposes of education, for instance, like to show your doctor a sore you saw somewhere), very often according to the law, that is what those pictures would be classified as.

That's the case whether you make and send them to one person, who sends them to no one else, or if you made and sent them to hundreds of people. It also would be a crime on both your parts: on your end, for making the images and sending them, and on his for soliciting them and accepting them. Since he's also a legal adult and you're not, his merely asking you to make those photographs, even without you doing so, is often a crime all by itself, like solicitation of a minor or corruption of a minor.

Here's a solid snippet from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's page about child pornography (I've bolded important sections for you):

Under federal law (18 U.S.C. §2256), child pornography is defined as any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video, picture, or computer or computer-generated image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical, or other means, of sexually explicit conduct, where
- the production of the visual depiction involves the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; or
- the visual depiction is a digital image, computer image, or computer-generated image that is, or is indistinguishable from, that of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; or
- the visual depiction has been created, adapted, or modified to appear that an identifiable minor is engaging in sexually explicit conduct.

Federal law (18 U.S.C. §1466A) also criminalizes knowingly producing, distributing, receiving, or possessing with intent to distribute, a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture or painting, that
- depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct and is obscene, or
- depicts an image that is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex and such depiction lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Sexually explicit conduct is defined under federal law (18 U.S.C. §2256) as actual or simulated sexual intercourse (including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex), bestiality, masturbation, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person.

For purposes of enforcing the federal law (18 U.S.C. §2256), “minor” is defined as a person under the age of 18.

Lately, some underage folks have been sharing these kinds of photos via cell phones -- often for the same reasons you are thinking about it, either because a partner asked for them, or as part of sexual play they just want to share -- and some have been charged with or around possessing and/or distributing child pornography, even though that's really an unintended consequence and use of child pornography laws, in which the minor in any images is supposed to be considered the victim, not a perpetrator. While charges usually happen because a person who was sent the photos did distribute the photos to others, with or without permission to do so, something clearly few people who made and shared the photos expected to happen, it can also happen even with distribution to only one person. And like I explained, even if those photos are only sent to your boyfriend, it would be illegal for him to even ask you for these and to receive and possess them.

There have been some legal battles and disagreements about this in terms of minors involved, and many people have the opinion that charging minors who make these images without any intent to produce child pornography -- not adults who ask for them, seek them out or receive them, or even just the people who distribute them -- is ethically questionable (which I very much agree with). But the fact remains that, at this time, you AND your boyfriend could face very serious charges for this.

If you want to know more, you can Google around, or check out this piece at the New York Times, which covers the issue very well.

On top of all of that, if in your state you are also not above the age of consent, this and any other kind of physical sexual activity or behavior with this person may not be lawful. In the case there has been, and your parents know and approve, that still would not mean the law would not apply to him (as that would be criminal on his part, not yours). In many states, you're over or at the age of consent, but there are still some where the age of consent is 18 (California, Arizona, Tennesee, Virginia, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Orgeon), and others were a certain number of years age difference between partners when someone is under 18 make some or all kinds of sex unlawful.

In the case that you're asking yourself, "But how would anyone find out?" I think it's safe to say most of the folks who wound up with people finding out, or with their photos being distributed to everyone in school, probably thought the same thing when they made and sent them. By all means, it's totally possible no one would find out, but I'd say it's just as possible someone would. Relationships that seem really great can change radically over time, and people can do things you just didn't think they would do. Parents or friends can pick up a phone to just make a call and press the wrong button, or use a computer for a second to try and find their own stuff and accidentally open yours, and find themselves seeing your photos. You or your boyfriend might decide one of these pictures is so cool or amazing that you share it with one other person who you thought you could trust, but who it turns out, you couldn't. I think when we're making choices like this, it's wisest to make them considering the very real possibility that the private may become public.

Outside of the legal issues, I can never speak to what's right or wrong for someone in a situation like this, especially when I know very little about the relationship as a whole, or what both people really want and feel comfortable with. But you did tell me some things that I think are worth thinking about and addressing.

I am a little concerned that it sounds like you expressed that this just isn't something you're comfortable with, and don't like doing this, but "he doesn't get it." Even if and when any of us doesn't understand why another person is reluctant to do something we want them to do, or outright does not want to do what we want them to do, we don't have to get it. We just need to accept it. If he also wants to try and understand why better to understand you better, that's okay, but ideally any questions about the why of your feelings in this should first be qualified by him saying very clearly that even though he doesn't get it, and even though he wants to, if you don't want to do this, then he doesn't want you to do it and you should know and feel it's 100% okay if you don't.

Mind, like I said, even if you did feel okay, this would still involve one or both of you potentially committing a serious crime in the eyes of the law, so I cannot advise you against doing this enough. But if it were all legal and okay, he should be accepting of the fact that you just aren't into this now and should let it go without pushing for it, talking about how it'd be good for both of you -- if that idea came from him -- or insisting that he needs to understand why you aren't comfy with this in order for him to let it go. Get what I mean?

Please also know that in the case that you feel like since you agreed you'd do this, you now have to that that is simply not true. He wanted something, you really didn't, and so you agreed and tried. But you didn't sign a legal contract to do this or anything like that. Just like with anything else sexual or otherwise interpersonal, any time we say yes to something, we always have the right to change our mind, say no instead, and we're always entitled to have any other person involved respect that completely.

It also sounds like your boyfriend might not be fully taking the difference in your ages and the major differences in your status in the world -- since he's a legal adult and you are not -- into consideration in ways that are important. I think it'd be a good idea to have a serious check-in about this. Some relationships with age differences like yours can be healthy, equitable and good, while others are not. One thing common in those that aren't is the older person behaving with the younger person as if they, too, were the same age, at the same stage in life, and had the same legal or cultural standing. If and when the older person is blowing off or diminishing the fact that even just a few years can create some big differences for people, either at certain times of life, and/or when one person has a very different set of rights than other other because one person is a minor while the other is not, that's usually not a good sign. I think it'd be wise to talk seriously about that.

Just so you know, it may be that at some point taking nude photos of yourself, whether you share them or not, or having someone else take them is something you experience as good for you, as freeing in some way, or is just an exciting and/or heartfelt gift to give to a lover. But it sounds to me like even if this wasn't a legal issue, now's not that time because you're not experiencing this as anything but stressful, and as something that's making you feel more challenged in your body image instead of less. That's okay. It doesn't mean you're not enlightened or liberated or mature or anything like that: we all have our own pace and process with our bodies as a whole and our sexual bodies, and there's no right one. We all get to be wherever it is that we're at, and should never be pushed by someone else to be in a place we're not because they want us to be in a different place based on their own desires or their own pace.

So, even if the law wasn't an issue, based just on what you're saying about how you feel, I'd suggest you just save something like this for a time in your life, should that come, where you want to do this for yourself as much as for someone else, and at a time in your life when it felt like something you enjoyed. In the meantime, for your own body image, there are certainly other (and legal) things you can do to work on that, whether that's finding a sport or other movement-based activity that helps you feel good in your own skin, journaling your feelings about your body to work them out, unpacking negative body feelings with a counslor or support group, or even taking photos you know are only for yourself and will only be seen by you (though for the love of Pete, if you do, put them somewhere where you KNOW they will only be seen by you, okay?).

By all means, sometimes we'll want and need to step outside of our comfort zones in life to grow, to nurture our relationships and also may or may want to in order to express our love and affection for someone else. But that's not something we always need to do, or steps that are always going to be right for us or of benefit. It really depends on what the step is, the context of it, and how we feel about it. While I'm someone who absolutely appreciates fine art and photography, including that of the body, and knows full well that sometimes creating these kinds of images or having them created can feel very empowering, or be something enjoyed between lovers, I'm also certain that NOT sending a nude photo to a lover they want is likely not something anyone will feel unloved without, or that you will feel as this GIANT thing you missed out on in life if you don't do, now or ever. I've no doubt you can find ways to express your love, care and sexual feelings for this person that are within the bounds of the law and the bounds of your own comfort.

I don't mean to scare you or freak you out with any of this. I'm saying what I am because the possible consequences are truly very scary right now, and because with something like this, for someone like you, I'd say the risks exponentially outweigh the possible benefits, risks I got the impression you weren't even aware of.

They're a lot to risk to make something it sounds like you're not into the first place, just so that a lover can have images of you on paper for his masturbation (which is usually what folks who want images like this will use them for) during a short time apart, images he could just as easily access in his own head. If he doesn't want them for that and just wants to have a picture of you to remember you by, I bet you probably have something that's been taken already, and where you've got clothes on, so he can have that.

I'll leave you with a couple links I think might be helpful moving forward:

written 28 Oct 2010 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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