Young people have always explored their sexuality and shared these experiences with others. Last year a report from the NSPCC showed that one in seven (approximately 14%) young people in the UK have taken a naked or semi-naked picture of themselves. A lot of these young people will then go on to share these images with someone they know.
These figures, suggest that sharing self-generated sexual images has become just another way for young people to express their sexual selves. It’s all part of growing up – sexting is just a different approach to more traditional forms of sexual self expression.
But, for some young people, sexting can lead to criminal prosecution along with classification as a sex offender. This is because sending a naked image of yourself in a text, or on social media, when you’re below the age of 18 is technically illegal. The law doesn’t make any exception for young people creating, possessing or sharing such material themselves. It counts as an offence of distributing an indecent image of a child and meets the legal definition of child pornography.
Recent figures from Scotland on the issue show that the number of children reported to prosecutors for sexual offences has risen by 21% in four years – with sexting being one of the main reasons for the increase. And this year alone, across the UK the police have investigated thousands of children for sexting including a five-year-old boy in County Durham, and a 10-year-old boy who was cautioned by Northumbria Police.
A stark illustration of how cruel the criminal law has become in this regard is illustrated by the example of 12 year old girl in the south of England who was being groomed online by a paedophile. The girl was pressured to send him topless photos. The paedophile cannot be found as he was using an anonymous Instagram account. But the police have told the girl that she may face criminal charges and a criminal record for creating and sharing explicit images of a child despite the fact she has been the victim of grooming.
In this way, the very laws which were intended to protect children from abuse and exploitation are now being used to punish children. So, although it is of course critical to have social and legal regulations to protect children from harm and exploitation, criminalising consensual sexting among young people loses sight of children’s best interests.
Even if no formal action is taken by the police, any investigation will be recorded on the young person’s criminal record – which may well be disclosed at a later date. This could then affect future access to education, employment, travel and housing – among a whole host of other things.
All of these reports of increases in sexual offences among children have been accompanied by a cry for better sex education on both the laws on sexual behaviour, but also on topics like sexting and pornography. On top of this, what is actually needed is a greater understanding of young people’s lives and experiences.
For now at least, sexting is here to stay. So rather than demonising and criminalising children’s behaviour – which forms a natural part of self expression – the law needs to be updated. Because technically even though the age of consent is 16, the age for distributing indecent images is 18. So although 17 year-olds can legally have sex, they cannot legally send a naked image
It is clear then that consensual youth sexting should be treated as a separate and distinct behaviour from child pornography. Young people should not be categorised as “producers” and “distributors” of their own pornography. Instead, young people should be free to express their sexual selves as they desire.