Sexting legal reforms need to be acted upon
Victoria has the chance to lead the world in keeping up with change
The wheels of legal reform can move slowly. Sometimes, this is necessarily so when complex matters of law are involved. In one area, however, there would appear to be little in the way of obstruction to a fairer administration of justice. That area is sexting.
The word itself only came into usage less than a decade ago, and as with all technological change, the law has lagged behind.
Last week, a step was taken in Victoria to redress this situation when Parliament's law reform committee published its final report into an inquiry into sexting. It made 14 recommendations to the government, which now has six months to act.
The two major changes are that an offence be introduced for non-consensual sexting, and that young people have a defence against child pornography charges if the two people involved in the image - the subject, and the sender - are legally allowed to engage in sexual activity, and that ''they are not more than two years older than any minor depicted in that image''.
As the committee logically points out, if a couple can engage lawfully in sex, then surely they should not be regarded as engaging in child pornography ''if they take a photo or video of that activity''.
The prevalence of sexting is hard to quantify. The inquiry cited surveys putting the ratio as anywhere from 7 per cent to 40 per cent of young girls who had been asked to send naked or semi-naked pictures of themselves. Anecdotally, the practice was common.
Chairman Clem Newton-Brown said the committee believed that ''the laws that currently apply to sexting miss the mark - the law does not adequately recognise that sexting by young people is different to the sharing of images by paedophiles, and the law does not adequately recognise that real and significant harm is done to people of all ages when explicit images are distributed to third parties without consent''.
The inquiry was ordered in 2011 by Attorney-General Robert Clark following reports by this newspaper into the far-reaching consequences that can occur in relation to non-consensual sexting.
Mr Newtown-Brown touched on the forces at play in relation to teenagers and sexting. The committee had heard, he said, that ''sexting practices by young people often reinforce gendered stereotypes, such as that girls who send intimate images are promiscuous, whereas boys who send intimate images are simply 'having a bit of fun'.'' Girls were under more pressure than boys to make and send such images of themselves.
The inquiry's report also quite rightly focuses on the value of education. The ubiquity of mobile devices in teenagers' lives works against them having a clear idea of the ramifications in the misuse of those devices. Perhaps the hardest thing to instil in young people is the knowledge that cyberspace is also governed by the law.
The committee recommends that schools ''adopt holistic, integrated programs'' to raise awareness among students, that teachers undergo more training on cyber safety, that the government look at media campaigns on those who distribute sexting images, and that Victoria Police re-examine its policies on adult sexting.
The inquiry's findings broadly align with the view of several submissions. For instance, the president of the Children's Court, Paul Grant, and the Criminal Bar Association both highlighted the undesirability of a link in punishment between the offences of sexting and child pornography.
It would be a world first, the committee believes, if an offence of non-consensual sexting came into effect. It also would be a victory for common sense. The word reform is often hijacked to mean merely change. This inquiry has proposed genuine reforms, that is, for the betterment of society. Its recommendations should be adopted.
And another thing...
It's said that the flutter of a butterfly's wings can lead to a hurricane on the other side of world. But what if the butterfly stopped flapping its wings entirely? Or if a lobbyist stopped flapping his gums? Would this not also have curious ramifications? Now that lobbyists are no longer whispering in federal government offices, we predict: 1. A violent drop in the sale of those cotton buds on little bendy sticks as MPs spend less time cleaning muck out of their ears. 2. Local restaurants, bars and gift stores laying off staff or even closing for the winter. 3. A marked fall in ambient temperature. 4. An epidemic of well-dressed people on the buses talking to themselves in urgent persuasive tones one moment, and then asking ''what's in it for me?'' the next. 5. An outbreak of existential crises for MPs left alone to their own opinions on everything