Here’s a modern morality tale. One night at home, a 14-year-old boy called Simon sends a naked picture to a classmate. Instead of deleting the picture, his love interest sends it on to other pupils at their school, where it is passed around from phone to phone. Simon ends up feeling humiliated, eating lunch in the library alone to avoid his peers.
At this point, it is usual to sigh, perhaps whistle through your teeth, and reflect soberly on the perils of mixing lust-filled teenagers and new technology. Poor kid. Bet he won’t send another naked selfie. Still, I hope he’s getting the support he needs.
Unfortunately, in the internet headline writer’s favourite phrase, what happened next will surprise you. When the school found out about Simon’s sexting, the police were informed. And because the incident was classed as a sexual offence, the officer had no choice but to record it on the police database, where it could be disclosed to employers for the next 10 years.
When the Today programme revealed Simon’s story last week, it provoked strong feelings. Of course it did. This is a case made for moralising. It has everything – scarce facts, lusty teenagers and new technology – and as a bonus it involves sexual behaviour that wasn’t possible when anyone over 30 was growing up. […]
But don’t listen to anyone who comes to a glib conclusion about what happened to Simon, because not everything is a moral panic or a howling injustice. The lessons to be learned from his unfortunate experience are surprisingly small and simple.
First, let’s untangle why the police acted as they did. There are two possible interpretations of Simon’s actions and we’ve only heard his side of the story. What if he sent the picture unsolicited? In that case, what happened is more like flashing than flirting – and early sexual offences are a big red flag for escalation into more serious crimes. There are good reasons for the police to have a policy of recording every underage sexual offence reported to them by a school.
But let’s take the facts at face value – Simon was flirting with a girl and she made it clear that she would not be averse to seeing him naked. That shakes the kaleidoscope. Oddly, his age then counts against him. If he were an adult, sharing his nude selfies without his consent would be distributing “revenge porn”. And under a new offence introduced in April this year, it could be punishable by up to two years in prison.
Yet the girl in this case seems to have got off scot free, as have the other sniggering teenagers at the school. “I’ve not seen the image since, but I know that some people still have it,” Simon told the BBC. “It bugs me, because they say how bad it is to distribute images, but now everyone’s got them, they don’t do anything about it.” That is unfair. While it seems disproportionate to prosecute teenagers for sharing the photos, they should be punished by the school – and Simon should not be denied the status of victim. A wrong was done to him, and because he is male, it is not being properly acknowledged.
But before I mount my high horse on his behalf, I have to acknowledge this springs from understandable foundations. The majority of revenge porn victims are women and there is no obvious male equivalent of the widespread “slut shaming” of teenage girls. The famous case in Steubenville was not a one-off. In 2012, 15-year-old Californian Audrie Pott killed herself after pictures of her being sexually assaulted at a party were shared around school; a year later, 17-year-old Canadian Rehtaeh Parsons did the same. Also in 2013, an Irish 17-year-old took an overdose and ended up in a coma after she was photographed performing oral sex on a boy at an Eminem concert.
Yet there is no reason male victims should suffer because they are rarer. It is perfectly possible to reconcile the feminist observation that sexting gone wrong falls more heavily on girls and do right by the minority of male victims.
The way to do that is to focus not on the action itself, but its effects. The police are already encouraged to do this in other crimes involving new technology: for example, in “trolling” cases, the CPS guidelines set a high bar to prosecute messages that are offensive or unpleasant. At the same time, stalking charities are educating the police and public that an insidious drip-drip of low-level incidents can cause serious psychological harm. I’ve heard Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has consistently spoken out against Twitter abuse, give a useful analogy: imagine being sent a bunch of flowers. How lovely! Except if they are from your ex, and you have a restraining order out against him, and that bunch of flowers is his way of saying: I know where you live.
If you apply that logic to Simon’s case, the wronged party becomes clear. He is the one eating lunch in the library because of bullies, not the girl who received his selfies. Once that is acknowledged, the lessons are clear. The young need a better understanding of consent – making sex and relationships education compulsory in all schools would be an obvious first step – and for victims of bullying to get proper support. We can’t stop teenagers sexting, but we can help them practise safe sext.