Studies are showing that many young people have few qualms about sharing intimate photos of themselves with their friends. In some cases, it’s simply part of a flirty relationship. Non-consensual sharing is another matter entirely.
Producing and sending naked or semi-naked images using cellphones and other electronic media is sometimes called “sexting.” The definition does not distinguish between consensual or non-consensual sharing, and it is this latter practice that has federal and provincial lawmakers promising to take action.
While their intentions may be laudable, the difficulty is how to tailor appropriate legislation when society is struggling to keep pace with technology-driven changes in young peoples’ attitudes and social behaviour. Many teens say they don't feel their views are being taken into account by the adults who are making society's rules.
There are at least three research projects now underway in Canada that will give lawmakers some up-to-date data on why teens and other young adults exchange salty photos of themselves, as well as how they view the practice.
Sexting seen as adult term
In the meantime, recent research elsewhere suggests that when it comes to sexting, the crucial issue for young people is consent rather than what the images show.
And even terminology can be problematic.
A recently published Australian study found that, for the 16 and 17 year olds in its focus groups, the word sexting "did not adequately reflect young people's everyday practices and experiences of creating and sharing digital images."
Kath Albury, a co-author of the "Young people and sexting in Australia" study, told CBC News that the teens "didn't use the word 'sexting.' They saw that purely as an adult term. To them it was 'pictures' or 'selfies.' "
In fact, "some participants suggested that 'pictures' only become 'sexting' 'when a person gets offended by an image,'" her report states.
In both Canada and Australia, 16 and 17 year olds can legally have sex with each other but, in some contexts, if they take pictures of themselves or each other naked, they are at risk of being charged with child pornography.
"Why can you see it in your own eyes but not send it in a photo?" wondered one of the male teens in the study.
"The context is so important to them, and yet context is not always under our control," says Albury, a professor at the Journalism and Media Research Centre of the University of New South Wales in Australia.
None of the teens in the study, she notes, were naive about that.
It's all about consent
For teens, the issue isn't the images themselves, it's the sharing of these images without consent, whether it's teens or adults doing the sexting.
"People over 18 have also had experiences with sexting where it went badly," notes Maryellen Gibson, a 19-year-old University of Saskatchewan student who was working with the Canadian Network of Women's Shelters and Transition Houses this summer on a research project into domestic violence.
"I don't think that it is wrong in any way, unless you have that breach of consent and it's being distributed."
That seems to be a fairly widespread view that can also be found in another Australian study, which surveyed about 1,000 young people, mostly in their mid-teens, in 2012 and found that "sharing a nude or sexy photo of someone else without their permission was seen as the most harmful cyber behaviour (71.3 per cent said it was very harmful and another 19.6 per cent said it was harmful)."
But that study, by Australia's National Children's and Youth Law Centre (it's national advocacy group for youth justice), also said that "young people feel strongly that no one should ever be charged with sex offences or placed on the sex offender register for age-appropriate sexting."
For Carleton University criminologist Lara Karaian, even if young people sext certain images without consent, the appropriate response is not child pornography charges, "given the severity of the punishment and how youth understand the practice, and its potential opportunities and its potential risks."
Albury, too, notes that, a main concern about the existing Australian law is that young people being blackmailed or bullied "by someone threatening to share a photo of them may not come forward and get help or support because they now understand that they can be charged for producing the image."
A 'culture of slut-shaming'
Still, for Karaian, "the problem never lies with the person who expressed their sexuality digitally, the problem always lies with the person who forwarded the image without consent.
"But what often happens, in a culture rife with slut-shaming, is that the girl who created the image is blamed."
Albury says that since we have the technology to do so, taking and sharing intimate pictures is "a different part of relationships now."
As Alice Gauntley, a 19-year-old McGill University student, puts it, "We share lots of things about our lives online now, and we're trying to renegotiate where the boundaries are and what's private and what's not, and sometimes we overstep those things, and especially young people, who are still figuring a lot of that stuff out."
Gauntley is majoring in women's studies at McGill and also taking computer science. She has volunteered with a peer sex education program and facilitated workshops on sexual assault and consent.
She says young people sext "for a lot of the same reasons adults do, and because it's a way that people are exploring their sexuality."
"It's about self-expression or about trust, showing someone else that you trust them or you care about them, which makes it all the more terrible when that trust gets violated," she told CBC News.
In Albury's analysis, sexting is part of flirtation, and seen by young people as lower risk and safer than a physical sexual relationship.
She says there's also sexting in non-romantic relationships. "People would send a stupid photo to make other people laugh and it wasn't designed to be a sexual come on but it might involve nudity or semi-nudity." She says it's part of the friendship.
Still, for young people, sharing the images without consent happens too frequently. And Gibson, for one, says she doesn't think "consequences are very close on the mindset of a lot of people."
A gender issue
Both Maryellen Gibson and Alice Gauntley, the two young women interviewed for this article, took issue with the gender imbalance in the sexting dialogue.
As part of her summer job, Gibson screened many public service announcements produced in Canada and abroad, and criticizes many of their warnings about sexting because they often socially degrade the "girls who send these pictures out and [say] nothing about what happens to the other people who distribute it."
"Any time girls are being part of any sexual act - sending or actually - they're considered dirty, and the guys are either never talked about or are seen as having accomplished something, and that's just not the case."
Gauntley also feels there are huge double standards over whether these pictures are shared consensually or not.
"Teenage girls especially aren't seen as having a lot of sexual agency, so it's not understood why they would want to share those images. And then when those images are shared non-consensually, it all ends up being blamed on them, in a way that it isn't with young men.
"Having one naked picture of yourself is not a huge deal for a lot of guys in the way it can be completely devastating for young women."
In her experience, people who are found to be sexting "are often judged pretty harshly." But she emphasizes that the conversation should be about consent, "not in terms that this girl was being slutty or doing something inappropriate, it has to be about this was people trusting each other and someone was betraying this trust."
Albury, too, is concerned about how society views young women's sexuality.
"There hasn't been, until quite recently, a discussion of what are our expectations of young men in relationships and what's their responsibility to be ethical around images.
"And also how can we respectfully acknowledge that teenage girls also have sexual desire, also want to flirt, also have pleasure in their bodies in the same way boys do and their sexuality isn't just a jewel to be jealously guarded until they're married. For them it's also something that they want to live and experience, and they do that in different ways."
Change the law?
Both Gauntley and Gibson support changing the law to address the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.
"That's the distinction that we're going to have to make moving forward, to create laws that are nuanced and that address the actual harm that occurs, while understanding that this is something that's changing because of new media," Gauntley says.
In Gibson's view, if these images are consensual, "and they aren't being maliciously distributed, I don't think that's something that should be an issue legally."
But she would like to see a new law that applies to both adults and teenagers for the non-consensual cases.
And that is what a senior federal/provincial committee has recommended to the federal government: "a new criminal offence addressing the non-consensual distribution of intimate images." A similar recommendation is before lawmakers in Australia.
Gibson also has some advice on how to educate teenagers about sexting. Unlike many of those PSAs she screened, Gibson would like to see a focus on the "likely offenders" - teenaged guys. "It really needs to be shown that it isn't a joke and that it's somebody's life, somebody's body."
She also has advice for her parents' generation to have conversations with their kids about the "need to be in a strong and trusting relationship before" they sext.
Carleton's Karaian would like more of those conversations to be "about sexuality as a pleasurable, healthy, hot and safe part of their adolescence and not just this danger-laden terrain."