As the details about the NSA’s monitoring programs continue to emerge, I am working on my book’s introduction today, and thinking about this:
If network technology is inherently revolutionary—it leads one to wonder why existing governmental, bureaucratic, corporate, and financial elites are so enthusiastic about, and so heavily invested in, the success of this technology? (Barney, 2000: 19)
In Victoria, Australia, the Law Reform Committee has conducted an Inquiry into Sexting. There’s comprehensive information form the inquiry online, including transcripts, submissions, and the final report.
What’s amazing is that the inquiry took recommendations from a range of wonderful feminist academics working on sexting, including Lara Karaian, Kate Crawford, Kath Albury, and Amy Shields Dobson. Check out recommendation #4:
That the Victorian Government ensure that educational and media campaigns directed toward sexting focus on the appropriateness of the behaviour of people who distribute intimate images or media without consent, rather than on the person who initially creates the intimate images or media.
This is amazing to see in an official government report. As I discuss in my chapter on self-esteem and anti-sexting education campaigns, the blame-the-victim response is absolutely ubiquitous. I can’t wait to see what the new PSAs coming out of Australia look like if they actually take this advice.
The legal reforms the report suggests are also really interesting and are a pretty big departure from the response from many US states to criminalize youth sexting further. Instead, the report recommends reforming child pornography laws with defenses for close-in-age youth engaged in legal sex acts and discretion for judges in putting convicted sexters on the sex offender registry. It will be interesting to see what happens with the child pornography reforms, since in the US, Vermont’s attempt to decriminalize sexting for teens was met with national outrage–I talk about this case at length in the book.
The report’s attention to consent and harm is also really exciting. The press release explains:
While in most circumstances little or no harm is done to willing participants in sexting, real and significant harm can occur when images are distributed to other people without consent. The Committee recommends that legislation be introduced to make it an offence for any person to intentionally distribute an intimate image of another person without their consent. The Committee believes its recommendation for a non-consensual sexting offence that applies to adults and youth is a world first.
It may not exactly be a world first (North Dakota, for example, created an age-neutral misdemeanor offense in 2009 “for a person who knowingly acquires, possesses or distributes any photograph or visual representation that exhibits a nude or partially denuded figure without the person’s consent”), but thinking about the harm of sexting (1) in terms of non-consensual distribution and (2) in an age-neutral framework is really a step in the right direction.
I’m not sure that criminal law is the way to address the harm of nonconsensual or malicious sexting, given the huge problems with the prison system. Since other information-related harms (libel, slander, breech of confidentiality, publication of private facts, etc.) are in the domain of civil law, my latest thinking is that we should deal with the privacy violations of abusive sexting with lawsuits as well. Privacy laws in the US would have to get a lot better and easier to use, but so far it seems like the best legal solution.