Law

Sexting: another pervy panic

The UK authorities' creepy interest in teens' sex lives is doing real harm.

It was only a matter of time before the UK government’s lurid interest in teenage sex lives started to cause real harm. Now we know that it has. An under-18 schoolgirl has received a police caution for sending a photograph of her breasts to her boyfriend. The boyfriend also got a caution for showing the picture to his mates. Absurdly, they were both arrested for ‘distributing an indecent image of a child’. As if their arrest and caution weren’t enough of an overreaction, Nottinghamshire Police sent unrepentant warning letters to every school in the county saying they had ‘grave concerns’ about the ‘craze’ of ‘sexting’, even going so far as to warn that it could land teenagers on the sex offenders’ register.

This case is particularly bizarre, given that in 2012 the Association of Chief Police Officers told BBC current-affairs show Newsnight that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that children would be prosecuted for sexting. I guess Nottinghamshire didn’t get the memo.

But the police are not solely to blame for this warped application of the law. These officers are merely echoing the bizarre obsession with ‘sexting’ which has been parroted by those who make a living purporting to protect children: the NSPCC and ChildLine. In 2012, they published research into this ‘increasingly common activity’, which said that 40 per cent of those questioned had created a sexual image or video and about a quarter of them had sent it to ‘someone else’ by text. It is this ‘research’ which has stoked the official concern about ‘sexting’, turning it from stupid but essentially harmless adolescent behaviour into a cause for official concern.

To get an idea of just how perverse this case is, consider that this criminal caution will show up on the girl’s criminal record forever. If she wants to work with young or vulnerable people, it is likely that an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check will reveal the caution to her prospective employer. She will then be forced to explain how she got a bit overexcited with her camera phone. Nice. One moment of teenage folly will now follow her around for the rest of her life, just because Nottinghamshire Police and the NSPCC were so ‘concerned’ about her sex life that the police thought it proper to use her case to ‘send a message’ to all over-horny teenagers. The weird obsessions of the NSPCC and the police are turning young adults into marked sexual offenders in a way which is likely to impact on their job prospects as well as their confidence and self-esteem. When it comes to interfering pointlessly in young people’s lives to their detriment, the police and the NSPCC make a great team.

Of course, the government is as much involved as the NSPCC and the police in the criminalisation of teen relationships. Last year it extended the definition of domestic violence so that more teenagers and young people could be prosecuted for domestic abuse, for example if they ever ‘persistently texted’ or ‘demanded to know’ where their partners were at any particular time. Again, this weird obsession with branding teenagers as criminals for their relationship behaviour is driven by the official support and ‘research’ of children’s advocacy groups like the NSPCC – indeed, the NSPCC was the first to suggest that ‘emotional abuse’ in teenage relationships needed to be covered by the law.

The most perverse fact about the impact of the NSPCC’s research is that the majority of the young people it speaks to are able to deal with the odd sexual behaviour of their peers, without any help from adult society. The NSPCC’s 2012 research includes one exchange, between a Year 8 girl and an NSPCC academic, in which the girl describes ‘how boys, yeah, like touching us up and stuff’. This particular girl said that if the boys’ behaviour gets too much, she ‘slaps them’ and ‘beats them up’. Although this girl didn’t see her own situation as anything to be too worried about, the NSPCC researcher branded her experience of ‘being touched up’ as an example of ‘sexual abuse’. Another girl described the ‘pressure’ to send sexual texts in the following terms: ‘Some guy asked me for a picture of me in my bra, yeah, I was like, no. I have a picture of me in a bikini. He was like, yeah. I was like, tough you’re not getting it.’ While the young people under scrutiny appear to treat the sexual advances of their peers with a healthy mix of indulgence and scorn, the adults around them fall into a hysterical panic about children ‘sexually abusing’ one another.

Hopefully, the Nottinghamshire case will make the NSPCC, the government and the police realise that their pervy interest in young people’s sex lives is unhealthy and extremely damaging. Of course, young people sending nude and semi-nude pictures to each other is worrying, and certainly not wise in an era when such images are easily published and shared. Of course, there will be cases where adult intervention and guidance will be necessary. But sometimes we adults should really just butt out. Perhaps if we began by encouraging young people to trust one another to forge their own personal boundaries and to interact with each other with a degree of freedom, in order to establish their own moral outlook, then they might possibly have little reason to send silly photos to one another. In any event, turning them into criminals for doing so is hypocritical, counterproductive and cruel. Nottinghamshire Police, the NSPCC, ChildLine and anyone else involved in this absurd aberration of justice should be ashamed.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practicing criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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