The majority of schools across the country are dealing with the after effects of incidents of sexting, whether it is catching pupils with indecent images on their phones in school, complaints from parents or dealing with a young person who has had images shared amongst their peers without their consent.

Indeed, as a result the Police have recently released new guidance for schools – I strongly advise that you and your school management take time to read the document – you can find it here…

Unfortunately, many, schools’ response seems to be dated and often, merely adds fuel to the fire. In recent month I have been contacted by numerous schools that have asked me to come and talk to their young people around sexting. Their request often can be summarised by – ‘can you explain to the boys that they shouldn’t pressure the girls into sending them picture and can you give the girls tips how to say no and tell them why they shouldn’t send naked selfies’… In my work, this is an attitude I encounter on a regular basis, and for me is right at the core of many of the issues and problem behaviours we are discussing. The attitude that sex is still something that guys do to girls. 

For me these attitudes are not helpful and merely perpetuate the myth that sex is something that is owed to guys and whose enjoyment should be denied to girls (not even to mention the heteronormative aspects of the request!). It reinforces gender stereotypes that suggest that a ‘real lad’ pesters girls for sex and that nice girls don’t really go in for that thing – again contributing to the general attitudes that legitimises slut shaming.

Not to mention the fact that often these stereotypes do not fit many of the issues that we are dealing with. Indeed, we may ask, what about the boys? Are they not vulnerable too?

There are plenty of young men that have been caught out and had their images shared, not to mention the fact that some girls choose by their own free will to share photos not only with their ‘partners’ but also their same sex friends.

The issue.

Here is a conundrum – it is legal for teenagers who are both 16 years old to consent to sex. Indeed, they can do all manner of very rude things to each other; they can physically touch, caress and stroke their partner’s bodies in any way imaginable … and yet if they happen to film or photograph the proceedings – or heaven’s forbid, at a later date decide to send their partner a flirty naked selfie they are suddenly breaking the law and putting themselves and their partner at risk of prosecution.

This is no mister meaner or slap on the wrist. No, they could technically be charged with possession and distribution of indecent images of a child. They could end up on the sex offenders list and with the criminal record of a paedophile.

NB: As you have probably noticed – we think that the language we use is ridiculously important when it comes to RSE – we do not use the term Child pornography any more – they are indecent images of a child or images of child sexual abuse – pornography is something that is seen as legitimate – and becoming more so – Child abuse is not porn.

Where is the wisdom of applying child protection laws to criminalise the very people they were designed to protect? Are predatory paedophiles really in the same category as young people who sext and share flirty messages and images – especially when we are talking about young people who are consensually sharing images for their own private use.

The answer initially seems obvious – however, what happens when young people share these images without consent beyond the boundaries that they were originally intended. What should we do when young people use this images in an attempt to degrade and humiliate their peers? What is the solution when a young person records a sexual assault of another young person and rather than using the evidence to help convict the perpetrator, they instead post it on Facebook or Youtube?

Nevertheless, there is a risk of demonising young people for some of their behaviours, especially when adults are often being caught out for some of the same behaviours.

Indeed, when two people are flirting or fancy each other – it is perfectly reasonable and understandable why they may choose to send each other sext messages. There are also many reasons why someone might send their friend a risky photo as a joke.

When young people are hanging out, attending parties or generally being teens – they all have access to camera phone and have the ability to share images quickly and easily without a seconds thought (this is part of the problem), however this is not necessarily a malicious act or has any intended harm.

However, sexting and sharing images can lead to extremely unreasonable consequences.

The majority of young people have no idea that some of their behaviours could land them in trouble and are actually against the law.

Plus, there is a difficulty in applying rigid laws to a fragile line between unintended harm, fuelled by the impulsive ‘mind- to-keyboard’ gap and the vindictive slut-shaming and bullying of the weak or vulnerable.

Certainly there is an issue, when it comes to online behaviours, around understanding the concept of private and public space as young people vent their frustrations or play out their feuds on social media, unaware that they are publishing their thoughts for the world to see.

It is important to note that the first thoughts of many teens is not always the consequences of their action, or empathy towards others – instead they are motivated by attempts to fit in with their peers and to be regarded as popular. Indeed, you can even measure how cool you are are by the number of likes, comments and reposts your witty banter attracts on social media…

Nevertheless, it is clear that if we are to create a situation of sustained ‘digital citizenship’ we need to understand and engage with young people’s perspectives and recognise that although the technologies have changed and the consequences can be far wider reaching as the internet disseminates informations  – the fundamental behaviours and drives are still the same, we have just moved our sexual experimentation from behind the bike shed to mobile phones and social media.

Again, I believe the best approach to tackle this is similar to the way we tackle drug education. Rather than saying “don’t do it! It is dangerous and can ruin your life” Instead, talk about safe sexting… if you are going to engage in these activities – this is what you need to consider, these are the things that can go wrong, this is what the law says; here are the reasons that some people choose to do these things – and finally here are some tips for keeping yourself as safe as possible.

This approach has far more benefits – and has been shown to be much more effective. Treating young people as responsible agents who are making informed decisions is always the best approach.


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