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Why Teens in Australia Shouldn't Be Labelled Sex Offenders for Sexting

​Right now if someone under 18 snaps a naked photo of themselves, they are creating child pornography. We talked to Youth Action's Katie Acheson about why this should change.

Maddison Connaughton

Maddison Connaughton

Image via Flickr user Pro Juventute

Right now, if someone under 18 snaps a naked photo of themselves in Australia, they are creating child pornography. They can be arrested, charged, and prosecuted as a sex offender.

Youth Action wants to change that law. The NSW-based youth support group believes teens are being criminalised because the law is lagging behind technology. They point out that victims of revenge porn are too scared to go to the police because they have already, technically, broken the law by sending a cheeky nude.

Currently, the New South Wales government is hearing a parliamentary inquiry into the "sexualisation of children and young people." On Thursday, Youth Action's CEO Katie Acheson got up and called for an end to arresting and prosecuting teens for consensual sexting.

VICE called Katie up to chat about what Youth Action hopes will come out of this inquiry, and how the law should change.

VICE: So Katie, tell me about how the law stands. If someone under 18 sends a sext, or nudes via Snapchat—that's all illegal?
Katie Acheson: It is, it's a criminal offense. And it is actually being prosecuted on a daily basis.

So teenagers are actually getting arrested for sexting in Australia?
Yeah young people are being charged, and they are going to court and being sentenced. I was hearing two days ago from one young man who didn't have any prior history and was involved in consensual sexting. He was actually charged, and put in custody for three months. So he went to jail.

What specific laws are they being charged under?
The law that sexting comes under is the child pornography act. That means that young people who are charged with the crime can then be put on the sexual offenders register.

You know, they are not committing a murder or any sort of major crime. They are not committing a sexual offense or putting anybody at risk. And yet they are being put on the same register as a serial paedophile.

How have we got to this point with the law?
Technology is changing so quickly in the digital age. I would say a lot of the older generation are not as comfortable with the changes. But young people are, with what the situation on the internet is, and how it works. What they are not being told about is the legal ramifications of what they are doing.

If we were to legalise sexting how do we protect people from things like revenge porn?
Revenge porn is a really different situation that we need the government to look at in a different way. You've got large organisations that are for-profit and the better the content is, the more risque, the better it is for them. Right now, we're waiting for these corporations like Twitter and Facebook to make judgements for themselves.

We're suggesting that maybe the police should have takedown orders where they can approach an organisation like Twitter or Snapchat and say, "This information was posted without the consent of the other person and therefore it needs to be taken down." What we're seeing at the moment is a case-by-case basis on whether the organisations actually wants to do it or not, and we shouldn't leave it in the hands of those guys. We should be putting it in the hands of the community and, essentially, the police.

This parliamentary inquiry in New South Wales: It's run by adults, and pretty much only hearing from adults. Can it ever really makes policy that's good for young people?
Well, organisations like ours, we spend a lot of time talking to young people. We also spend a lot of time doing research and working with research bodies to see what's current, what's useful... What we've recommended is that young people be brought into the process of how this policy is now enacted.

The name "inquiry into teen sexualisation." Doesn't kind of assume teenagers are only victimised by sex, that they can't be empowered by it?
That was our first recommendation. We need to define what sexualisation is. A lot of people look at young people as very passive recipients, or that adult sexuality is being imposed on young people. But we know that young people are sexually developing at the same time as they are developing physically and mentally. So, it's really important that we acknowledge that... and we don't. Often we like to think of them as children, that we need to protect them. The sexting issue is one that kind of confronts us in that way.

Another thing we recommended is that there needs to be current research into what the sexualisation of young people in Australia, and particularly in NSW, actually looks like. Because the research just isn't there. We're assuming it's all negative, but we don't really know.

Can we talk for a second about Safe Schools?
We can.

Okay, so at the NSW inquiry we heard from the Australian Family Association, who said the program is "embedding sexualisation" in children by teaching them about homosexuality and sex toys. But if sex ed is sanitised, aren't young people just going to tune out entirely?
Sanitising sex-ed just isn't going to help. That's probably my easy answer to that one. We need to have sexual education and information that's age appropriate and available to young people from a very early age, so we can have honest conversations—rather than repressing them into feeling like it's a negative thing.

But I think the crux of [Safe Schools] was that it was an anti-bullying program that was helping young people to express their identity and understand different ones. And that's always a good thing in our society. Some of the other aspects people had a problem with, maybe they just need to be talked about more freely.

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