Every generation has chosen to express their sexuality in new ways that are generally deemed strange and confusing to their elders. Sexual expression is persistently subject to social and technological changes.
What is Sexting
Sexting involves taking and transmitting sexually explicit pictures via the internet or mobile phones. New technology has made the distribution of graphic sexual material much easier for young people.
For many, sexting has become a formative sexual experience and it appears that the distribution of sexual material between young people is here to stay. The conversation cites a study finding that 24% of 14-17 year olds surveyed had actively engaged with sexting.
Sexting used in varied context
The moral panic regarding sexting practices have generally focused on what U.S. consultant Nancy Willard categorizes as harassment (non- consensual images), at risk (a young person seeking an adult partner) or exploitation (revenge or blackmail.).
These are the stories that are generally presented by mainstream news:
Recent research has demonstrated that most young people understand the danger of non-consensual sexting (with 91% of young respondents viewing the practice as harmful and 92% saying it should be criminal). And while this ‘harmful sexting’ scenario definitely occurs, growing studies are also revealing that sexting occurs in a variety of contexts.
For one, sexting is very often an exchange of images solely between two romantic partners. Sexting has become part of the of the seduction process for many young people, allowing for fast-paced communication that makes it easier to start an intimate relationship. In these cases, sexting remains a consensual and private matter.
Sexting scenarios also emerge in non-sexual situations, such as friendship bonding, often between members of the same gender or within families as a joke as understood by both parties.
Despite these varied meanings given to sexting practices, the legal ramifications can be quite severe and uncompromising. The Criminal Code Act 1995 makes it an offence to transmit, publish, possess, supply, or obtain child pornography.
Basically, this law has not caught up to technological advances. With no specific sexting law, the current legislation conflates private, consensual texting with child pornography, resulting in excessive punishments to say the least. Those under 18 cannot consent to what are deemed ‘sexual pictures’ and even self-portraits could constitute child pornography. The charge is determined by the nature of the picture– not by the age of the person who produced it, or the context.
In one recent case, an 18-year-old from country Victoria received six unsolicited text message images of girls aged 15 to 18, topless or in underwear. When these pictures came to police attention in an unrelated case, the teenager was charged and as a mandatory element of the legislation, placed on the Sex Offender registry for 8 years.
A teenager who sent a nude photograph of themselves to their partner is not a threat to the community in the way that a convicted child molester is, but both are effectively treated equally under child pornography laws. This must be changed.
Whose idea of sexuality
Another clear problem with the current understanding of sexting is that definitions of sexuality effectively diminish the agency of young people, and women in particular.
As we have discussed, sexting is not always harmful, and it seems that young people are being punished for the panicked expectations of their parents. The Young People and Sexting in Australia study found that young people do not see all naked or semi-naked images as sexual; these labels are created by adults. The photo’s meaning cannot be taken from the photo alone, as is suggested by current laws. Although young people may be engaging in consensual flirting or joking, photos tend be interpreted solely through the lens of adult anxieties. For consensual sexting, there need to be an acknowledgement of young people’s potential for sexual agency, rather than casting them solely as either victims or perpetrators.
Sexism within anti-sexting campaigns
This is the educational Megan’s story video:
Sexting discourse clearly misrepresents the sexual agency of women and reproduces existing power imbalances. Campaigns such as Megan’s story overplay the embarrassing aspects of sexting, while underplaying young men’s ethical and legal responsibilities. There is no mention of potential child pornography charges, instead focusing on the young women’s need to preserve their ‘reputations’ by avoiding overt demonstrations of sexuality. Researchers cite a blogger’s analogy, “Imagine a drink-driving ad that showed a pedestrian being run over, the car zooming away, and then a caption that said – Watch where you’re walking, pedestrians.”
In the Young people and sexting report, one group of young women were also offended that their selfies were viewed as ‘provocative’ while young men’s naked pictures were understood as ‘jokes’. Once again, girl’s bodies are seen as inherently sexual, laden with a meaning that they do not control. This NSOCC report found that sexually active boys are admired, while sexually active girls are denigrated as “sluts” within the practice of sexting.
Suggestions for reform
There must be more legal differentiation between consensual age-appropriate practices (which must be protected from sex offender status) and predatory behaviour. This legal blog suggests a close-in-age defence to NSW child pornography laws to ensure that they are not applied to age-appropriate sexting.
Most importantly, there should be more discretionary powers of prosecution and judgement, which will understand that consensual sexting should not be legally ‘offensive’. If there is full consent from two underage partners, where images are disseminated without consent, we should not charge the victims.
Sexting education should also be more focused on fostering ethical, respectful practices between intimate partners and within friendship networks. This will ensure that young and female sexuality is not stigmatised, with existing sexual power reproduced within modern technologies. These educational strategies should emphasise ethical frameworks, and recognise that sexting can express intimacy, rather than shaming young people. Children should also be made aware of the legal ramifications, particularly the difference between non-consensual production and distribution of sexting images and consensual image sharing.