Revenge porn should not be part of ‘everyday life’. Here’s a strategy to keep it from happening

Published in The Telegraph online on 7 December 2015

In only one generation, the art of flirting has changed drastically.  For better or worse, smiling at someone during class or hoping to run into him or her at the gym, has been replaced by electronic communications: text messages, likes, shares, tweets, emojis and, in some cases, sexting. 

It should not surprise anyone that teenagers have taken up sexting.  Cameras on phones are constantly at hand: food is photographed before it is eaten, baby scans are shared when they're still in the womb, and the pet next door has its own YouTube channel.

On top of this is the heavily gendered hypersexualisation pushed on children via TV, advertisements, websites and pornography (which starts reaching them on average at age 12, but can be as early as eight as one woman just admitted).  

A new study has found that almost half of 16 to 17-year-olds are actually the least worried about revenge porn (where explicit photos - often the result of sexting - are posted online without the person's consent), despite being  the most likely victims. The 2015 Cybercrime Tipping Point report said that 40 per cent are 'unconcerned' about revenge porn and thought hacking and fraud were bigger issues. It concluded that revenge porn and online trolling are nothing more than an 'everyday concern' for modern teens - or #generation cybercrime.

Security expert Carl Roberts, who wrote the PA Consulting report, said: "This is everyday life for them in the same way people are not worried about walking down the street and getting called names".

So if young people aren't that worried about sexualised images, should grown-ups be?

 

In a word, yes.

A 2015 study by the Internet Watch Foundation and Microsoft, which identified nearly 4,000 online images and videos as 'youth-produced sexual content', found that 93 per cent featured girls rather than boys.  Examples include a heavily made and dressed up seven-year-old girl exposing her genitals to a webcam and a 10 year old performing a number of explicit sexual acts in front of her laptop.  

Before you fall off your chair with shock, think about this: 100 per cent of the content depicting children aged 15 years or younger had been harvested from its original upload location and further distributed via third party websites. 

That is not something done by children, but by adults - the same species that uses the internet, and often sexually explicit content, to coerce or groom young people into performing sexual acts.

Now, let us imagine that one of the 10-year-olds depicted in the videos had sought help from law enforcement. 

The UK’s age of criminal responsibility, which is currently 10, would mean that she might, in fact, be criminalised for the “making and distributing of indecent images of a child” – herself – in other words, for child pornography. 

The same would be true, and has proven to be so in a recent court case, for a 14-year-old who sent an explicit photo of himself to his or her girlfriend.  And if a teenager, up to the age of 17, becomes victimised by revenge porn because a photo she sent to her boyfriend is then spread around the internet because he wants to humiliate her, under the law she will be just as guilty as he is for the making and distribution of child pornography. 

Who would ever go to the police to report him for revenge porn under those circumstances? Who would want to admit that revenge porn was a major concern for them at all?

Those of us who fought hard to get the recent revenge porn law on the books would never have expected it to offer less protection to children than adults.  So what can be done?

In general, our legal system is careful about handing out punishments.  A rule of thumb is not to punish people for harming themselves, but for the harm they do to others.  A 16-year-old who sends a photo of herself to her boyfriend is not causing anyone else harm.  But the boyfriend who takes that photo and shares it with others does cause harm, and should be held accountable, through intervention of either prosecutors or the welfare system, depending on his age. 

Similarly, those who pressure or force others into making and/or distributing sexual images are clearly in breach of the law, and more severely if the subject is a child.  

Furthermore, exposing a young child to sexually explicit images constitutes sexual abuse, and sexting those who clearly do not want to receive such messages should be covered by the law on harassment. But criminalising children for taking their own images just starts at the wrong end.  We should recognise that our society teaches them to overvalue photographic images and exposes them to hypersexualisation from a very young age. 

Criminalising them when they act on it is not only wrong, but makes young revenge porn victims second class citizens compared to adults. We should fix this; and we should also commit to do better on a broader front.

We need to insist upon intelligent sex and relationship education that covers these complex issues of consent for children, teachers and parents, and law enforcement too.  We should work with our children to make sure their internet usage is predominantly in the public space, not behind closed doors, and help them understand that any photos or text on the internet are worldwide and forever. 

With better laws and robust enforcement, we should go after the creators of pornographic images of children and non consensual sexual images of adults, as well as those who intentionally post, host and refuse to remove them from the internet.

As a matter of fact, we owe the younger generation an apology. For our own irresponsible behaviour; for having allowed the porn and entertainment industry to use fantastic technology to distort children’s ideas about their bodies and sexual identities, without offering strong countervailing protections by way of robust sex and relationships education.  For making them think that revenge porn, or the distribution of explicit images online, is just an 'everyday' part of their lives. 

We can do better, and we must.