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.

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