First published by The Huffington Post, 7th May 2015
It’s tricky to be a teenager in 2015. There are increased tuition fees to think about, the unaffordable nature of housing, the lack of jobs for graduates, and the spectre of zero hour contracts looming on the horizon. There are also more immediate concerns, like navigating the unstoppable tide of online pornography, cyberbullying, and exam pressure. It’s no wonder that most young people are unaware of the fact that by taking explicit pictures of themselves, they risk facing criminal charges.
A loophole in the law means that any under-18 year old taking explicit selfies can be charged with creating and sharing indecent images of children. This is particularly nonsensical in the case of 16 and 17 year olds, who can consent to sexual acts and relationships, but are unable to take or share erotic pictures of themselves. The charge of creating images of child sexual abuse is a very serious one, and the legal definition should differentiate between pictures taken consensually by over 16s and children being photographed and groomed for sexual abuse by adults.
I’m not attempting to gloss over the very real problem of teens who have their intimate photos shared with peers and strangers without their permission, after their relationship with the intended recipient has broken down. This can be absolutely devastating, particularly in the wake of the slut shaming and disrespect from friends and classmates that inevitably follows.
Criminalizing young people, however, completely misses the point. Instead of slapping teenagers with criminal records, we should endeavour to support them and provide them with high-quality, comprehensive sex and relationships education. Young people should be educated about the essential nature of consent and respect in their relationships, so that the idea of sharing another teen’s intimate photos without permission becomes socially repugnant.
Sex education desperately needs to provide a solid foundation upon which young people can build healthy, loving relationships, and respond to the pressure to be sexually desirable, to emulate pornography, and to acquiesce to the demands of partners with strength and maturity. Schools must commit to tackling the bullying of teenage girls when private images are used to humiliate and silence them, and this shouldn’t involve the police penalizing the young women themselves.
Teenagers are doing their best to cope with their entry into a highly sexualized society, and they have grown up with technology that allows them to immortalize and disseminate every minute of their lives. Equipped with hormones and smartphones, they should not be criminalized for documenting their burgeoning sexuality, and we owe them the education that will allow them to make smart, respectful choices when it comes to technology and their bodies.