PhD BLOG – Youth sexting: can we ‘protect’ young people without ‘promoting’ youth sexting?

bsc-postgrad-blog-picThe latest contribution to the BSC Postgrad Blog is from Emilly Setty. Emily is a PhD researcher at the University of Surrey conducting a qualitative study into young people’s practices and perceptions surrounding ‘sexting’. Emily has conducted group and one-to-one interviews with young people aged 15 to 17, focusing on how they construct and navigate the ‘ethics’ of sexting, in particular with respect to notions of ‘privacy’ and ‘consent’. Emily has also interviewed teachers and surveyed parents on their views and perspectives on the phenomenon.

Prior to commencing the PhD, Emily obtained an MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice from King’s College, London and a BSc in Psychology from the University of Surrey. Emily has worked as a researcher conducting studies into gangs and youth violence for the Dawes Unit, Catch22 and as a social researcher for the Ministry of Justice. Emily has also worked with offenders in the community, supporting their resettlement from prison and has completed a placement at Broadmoor Hospital, where she worked on a large-scale research project exploring substance misuse and impulsivity among personality disordered patients.

You can get in touch with Emily on twitter @emilysetty or email

In 1995, Carol Smart argued, we don’t “know how to support prostitutes without promoting prostitution” (p.67). Due to fears of the latter, we give up on aiming for the former. I’d argue the same applies to ‘sexting’ – defined as the “creation and sharing of personal sexual images or text messages via mobile phones or internet applications, including Facebook, Snapchat, and email.” (Hasinoff, 2015, p.1) – when it involves young people aged under 18. As a cultural phenomenon, ‘youth sexting’ has attracted media attention, public concern and a scramble for appropriate policy responses (Crofts et al., 2015). I’d argue due to fears of ‘promoting’ youth sexting, measures developed to address the ‘problem’, perhaps inadvertently, create barriers to realistic recourse – legal and otherwise – for those who experience harm.
In the panic around youth sexting, young people are constructed as at risk, naïve and vulnerable to perceived negative consequences of sexting. Moran-Ellis (2012) outlines these consequences as unauthorised distribution of their images online and/or around the peer group, bullying and harassment by peers, and exclusion from educational and employment opportunities when images become ‘public’. She suggests young people are considered likely to ignore or undervalue risk and lack the ability to self-regulate. Consequently, the emphasis is on teaching young people about the risks to encourage them to eschew sexting until they are old enough to weigh up the consequences and make informed decisions (Döring, 2014).
To address youth sexting, under 18s are subject to legal prohibition, under child pornography legislation, and informal mechanisms of control, through school and community-based initiatives that emphasise abstention from sexting. To take the former, recently, there have been occasions that policing bodies and the Crown Prosecution Service have stated it is unlikely to be in the public interest to prosecute youth sexters when it just involves young people and no other elements of harm or abuse. These are welcome developments, particularly given the reach of child pornography legislation. The interpretation and application of such legislation has resulted in subjects of images being drawn in, because, technically, it is illegal for an under 18 to produce an image of themselves as they are classified as having produced ‘child pornography’, becoming both ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’.
While steps have been taken to de-emphasise legal responses to youth sexting, there remains a belief that complete decriminalisation is undesirable because it is necessary to send out a clear message that sexting is wrong, to prevent young people from harming one another. I would argue a different impact: given the risk of self-incrimination if victims come forward, combined with shame-based abstinence campaigning criticised for its implicit (and often explicit) victim-blaming – what are the chances young people who are harmed feel they have realistic avenues for recourse (see Bailey and Mouna, 2011; Slane, 2013 for discussions with respect to the Canadian context)?
My research with young people revealed not only can youth sexters, notably girls, experience unauthorised distribution, pressure and coercion to produce images and blackmail to continue producing images, they are also at risk of receiving – what I found to be shocking amounts of – unsolicited explicit images from boys.
Unsurprisingly, given the emphasis on ‘just saying no’ to avoid legal and social consequences of sexting, individualised solutions to harm prevailed in young people’s discussions. They discussed learning to handle being pressured into sexting, receiving ‘dick pics’ and such like, and seemed to perceive little option to seek recourse with respect to these harmful practices. While they were cognisant and critical of the broader social and cultural meanings that underpin harmful practices, most were despondent, considering harm ‘inevitable’ rather than unacceptable experiences that should be recognised and addressed on a broader level.
It seems the construction of youth sexting as just “sexting gone wrong”, in which a producer is seen as having made a ‘mistake’ – perhaps a legal one – rather than potentially involving harm and victimisation that should be recognised, just as it should for adults, can delegitimise the position of youth sexters, abandon them to find solutions to the issues they face alone and prevent them from recognising and labelling experiences of harm as unjustified and undeserved, rather than somehow their fault.
It seems to come down to how “… as a culture, we have a difficult time treating sex as a normal, healthy part of adolescence” (Pascoe, 2011, p.11). Indeed, Crofts et al. (2015) argue – no matter what various press statements and policy documents suggest – the emphasis on deterring young people through the threat of child pornography legislation is unlikely to end any time soon. Such legal risks feed neatly into the preferred abstinence approach taken to youth sexting as it prohibits all and any youth sexual experimentation and expression, rather than giving rights to freedom from harm, emphasising sexting ethics, privacy and consent (Hasinoff, 2015). The latter would involve saying to young people they are not responsible for the harm they experience and regardless of their prior actions they will be protected and defended if their privacy or consent is breached by another. Currently, the refusal to countenance that young people may choose to sext and do not uniformly experience it as harmful (Karaian, 2012) means blanket prohibition becomes the answer and young people who are harmed can feel they have nowhere to turn.

Bailey, J. and Mouna, H. (2011) ‘The gendered dimensions of sexting: assessing the applicability of Canada’s child pornography provision’, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 23(2), pp. 405-441.
Crofts, T., Lee, M., McGovern, A. and Milivojevic, S. (2015) Sexting and young people. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Döring, N. (2014) ‘Consensual sexting among adolescents: Risk prevention through abstinence education or safer sexting?’, Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 8(1), article 9.
Hasinoff, A.A. (2015) Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.
Karaian, L. (2012) ‘Lolita speaks: ‘‘sexting,’’ teenage girls and the law’, Crime Media Culture, 8(1), pp. 57–73.
Moran-Ellis J (2012) ‘Sexting, intimacy and criminal acts: Translating teenage sexualities’, in: Johnson, P. and Dalton, D. (eds) Policing Sex. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp. 115–132.
Pascoe, C.J. (2011) ‘Resource and risk: youth sexuality and new media use’, Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 8(1), pp. 5-17.
Slane, A. (2013) ‘Sexting and the law in Canada’, Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 22(3), pp. 117-122.
Smart, C. (1995) Law, Crime and Sexuality: Essays in Feminism. London: Sage.


Thinking Differently about Youth Justice – Event & Call for Papers

The BSC Postgraduate Committee’s ‘Thinking Differently’ series brings together academics and practitioners to critically explore contemporary issues in criminology and challenge taken-for-granted assumptions. The series seeks to build on the work of the BSC Postgraduate committee’s work by hosting events that seek to provide a meaningful and relevant contribution to the criminology postgraduate experience within a supportive and inclusive environment.

Thinking Differently about Youth Justice

Contemporary youth justice can be suggested as laden with both problems and opportunities. Despite difficulties resolving the longstanding disproportionate treatment of particular groups (Smithson et al 2013, Uhrig 2016), opportunities to divert significant volumes of young people from youth justice services have also arisen. While responses to those who remain have become refocused on areas such as education (Taylor 2016), the status of young youth justice experts has also become elevated, with the promise that young voices can gain greater prominence (YJB 2016). This current state of flux has heightened the need for critical scrutiny (Phoenix 2015) while also cementing the importance of relationships between research, policy and practice, such as through the Greater Manchester Youth Justice University Partnership.
The BSC Postgraduate Committee would like to welcome postgraduates to the one-day event Thinking Differently About Youth Justice where space will be provided for discussion, reflection and the drawing together of contemporary themes in youth justice.

FREE Event

Tue 25 April 2017, 10:00 – 16:00 BST

Charles Wilson Building
University of Leicester
University Road

Please book your FREE place via the Eventbrite link below.


Confirmed Speakers:

Professor Jo Phoenix (Open University)
The Death of Youth Justice?

Professor Hannah Smithson (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Knowledge Transfer and Youth Justice: Developing and Embedding Youth Justice Research in Practice

Dr Kate Gooch (University of Leicester) and Piers von Berg (University of Birmingham)
Session title tbc

Call for abstracts

We invite abstract submissions of 300 words from postgraduate students on the theme of Thinking Differently About Youth Justice drawing on themes described above, and contemporary issues more broadly. Please email your abstracts to by 24th March – we will provide outcome notifications by 31st March.

Photo credit: BBC

PG BLOG -When does secondary victimisation stop? An argument for accountability

nicola-redgraveThis contribution to the BSC postgraduate Blog is from Nicola Redgrave. Nicola is a new postgraduate student who will resuming her studies in September. Her blog piece marries together her experience assisting victims of crime within the criminal justice system as a volunteer for victim support and the focus of her Masters dissertation; victims and repeat victimisation from the processes of the criminal justice system.  Want to hear more about this topic? contact Nicola here: @nikki_redgrave

Police and court procedures have been consistently scrutinised over the years as to the way in which victims are treated whilst working to secure a conviction. However, it is the failures of various agencies on the release of serious offenders which I will consider and the concept of tertiary victimisation in this context, which is quite evidently under-researched within criminological discourse.
The idea of tertiary victimisation does appear to be discussed more commonly in contemporary discourse, however, this does tend to be in terms of the wider social network of the primary victim, such as in cases of homicide and acts of terrorism, the relatives of the victims’ thus becoming tertiary victims. In principle, the notion of tertiary victimisation should naturally link to the concept of secondary victimisation, given the consistent failures from various justice agencies beyond conviction and release of an offender.
Primarily, it is important to outline that within the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights all human beings have a right to life, liberty and security from the state, these are basic fundamental rights. However, it could be argued that once an offender has committed a crime and particularly a crime against another human being which, as a result infringes on their human rights, would thus mean an offender would then forego their human rights to an extent. Reinforced by the Justice for all 2002 white paper whereby it states that victims’ rights should be central, although it does indicate that there should be some level of fairness towards the offender also, and this is where the complications arise in terms of ensuring the rights of both the offender and the victim are honoured without conflict.
Of course, in the UK, we are fortunate to have access to charities such as Victim Support, who are able and are renowned for assisting with a wide range of issues in the immediate aftermath of an offence being committed, right up until and during trial. This does however provoke thought as to what happens beyond this point, when the offender is released from prison.
I volunteered for Victim Support for around 12 months at the end of my undergraduate degree, and noted that the assistance offered in the immediate aftermath was not offered once an offender was released, or due to be released. In fact, it then soon became apparent that there are not currently any services offered for this point of the justice process. Once the courts and police have gotten their conviction, a victim is thus surplus.
At present, the MOJ (2015) highlights that, victims of violent or serious sexual offences will be offered the inclusion in the victim contact scheme by the Probation Service and thus be able to have some influence to the conditions imposed on the offender on release from prison, such as; preventing an offender from contacting them, any family members or entering the area in which the victim resides. This has been a requirement of the Probation Service since 1995 according to D’Enno (2007) where the victim would be contacted only if the offender was imprisoned for over 4 years, this changed in 2001 to offenders sentenced to 12 months or more.
It is highlighted in a number of publications, white papers and reports through various agencies that the reintegration and reform of an offender is imperative to prevent reoffending, thus being the primary concern for the criminal justice system at the point of the offender’s release. Although it is indicated that involvement from the victim is also important it is clear that the rights of both the victim and the offender cannot be honoured without infringing on one or the other. Obviously, reform is paramount here, particularly in terms of preventing reoffending, however it is noted by Baird (2009) that victims are not treated fairly in this sense, she emphasises that for victims of sexual assault, the effect can indeed be long lasting and victims may need support to recover, and not just in the initial aftermath as the impact of the offence could resurface in many cases, years later. It could be expected that once an offender is released in cases of sexual assault and rape that this could indeed resurface the effects the crime bore on a victim, as a result victimising them yet again.
I bore witness to this during my time at Victim Support, whereby a victim contacted the police to ascertain whether an offender had been released from prison five years into an eleven-year sentence, she was told she had “no right to be told as [the offender] had served his time”. This demonstrates the clear lack of understanding from a police officer’s position of the rights and processes in terms of victims within the justice system, thus provoking further thought to how often this is the case when it comes to the rights of a victim being infringed in order to uphold the rights of the offender.
In this case, it is evident that not only was she failed by the police, but by the Probation Service also, as their legal requirement to contact the victim prior to release was not honoured, thus the offender was left to move into a house across the road from her mother and work in an area a short walk from her home, where he continued taunt her through the offences he committed.
Emphasising that due to the lack of agencies available to offer that support for victims on release of the offender, and the rights and resettlement of the offender being central, victims are thus being subject to tertiary victimisation. But, what can be done? Clearly the rights and needs of the victims at this stage in the justice process needs to be carefully considered and awareness within various agencies needs to be reaffirmed and understood as meticulously as the rights and needs of the offender. It is all very well systems being in place in the immediate aftermath of the offence being committed, however victims are being consistently let down and marginalised once the offender has been sentenced and from then on.


1. Baird, V. (2009) “Sustainable Support for Rape Victims” available from:

2. CPS (2002) “Justice for all” Available from:

3. D’Enno, D. (2007) “Brighton Crime and Vice 1800-2000” Barnsley: Wharncliffe Books

4. MOJ (2015) “Code of Practice for Victims of Crime” Available from:

5. United Nations (ND) “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” Available from:

6. Victim Support (ND) “Getting Help After a Crime” Available from: