Earlier this year I was visiting a client. This client is a school director in a town near where I live. There was a pile of broadsheets on the front desk, for students to pick up at their pleasure. The middle pages were devoted to sexting. If I was a teenage girl I would have become very, very scared.
Curious as I was to understand the current reality of the world my client inhabited – I was working with the director on developing a culture of cooperation in the school – I explored this phenomenon, sexting. Let me paint a picture.
Imagine, you are 14. Your body is changing, the hormones are unseen but definitely felt. You begin to want to do things you never before thought interesting – like putting your lips on someone else’s. You like it when a certain person touches you. You like it a lot. The body sensations are just wonderful and you think that if something feels this good, it must be good.
The person you really like asks for a sexy photo. For people born before 1990 this was not part of the repertoire of awakening to sexuality, we didn’t actually have cameras. But this is 2015 and everyone has a smartphone. Really. Everyone. So you take a photo. This is very, very exciting.
A few weeks later you notice that you don’t really like this person as much as you thought. You start looking at other girls or boys in the class. In the end, withouthaving the language for it, because it’s not something you’ve done before, you dump the first one. That person is very, very upset. And that person is young and inexperienced too, and they do something very, very stupid. They seek revenge by sharing your intimate, sexy photo with their friends.
And what a photo that is! Sizzling! Friends share it with friends and before anyone can do anything about any of it, your photo is on everyone’s smartphone. If the earth could open up now and swallow you, you would be a happy person. But no, this is not science fiction. This is your life. And your sexy image is circulating.
You stay home sick. You feel a fool, so you don’t tell your parents. You don’t eat, you don’t come out of the room. You start wondering about how you can disappear. The last thing you want to do is go back to school, and face all those people who have seen that image.
After a while, the school gets into the loop. The mentor figures out why you aren’t at school. Their job is to get you back. They have another big problem on their hands. The person that sent your image around the school and into cyberspace has committed a felony under Dutch law. If brought to court, that person would be prosecuted as a distributor of child pornography. They would get a criminal record that they would keep for the rest of their lives. Sexual offender. Not a good thing to have on a CV.
Got the picture?
The school has a very big problem.
It has on the one hand a victim of child pornography. On the other hand it has a student who has performed a criminal act that had as much to do with being adolescent as being malicious. Lets say, for the purposes of this story, that one is a girl and one is a boy and that neither are angels. The girl took the sexy photo of herself and the boy, upset at being dumped, took revenge and shared the pic.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1980) and the Beijing Platform for Action all support the notion that the rights of the girl are as important as the rights of the boy. In the absence of any data, because there is no data on the incidence of criminal sexting, no data on what schools do when criminal sexting is discovered to have taken place in a school, no data on how many girls leave school as a result of criminal sexting having taken place, we only have hearsay to go on as to what actually happens when criminal sexting is discovered in schools. What appears to be the case is that social organisations intervene and teach the boy better conduct in lieu of a conviction. We have no clue what happens with the girls. We have no idea whether, when schools mediate between the perpetrator and the victim, anyone is bringing in the perspective of the international treaties.
Wouldn’t that be a good place to start?
This article is based on research by the author and published in GISWatch and launched at the Internet Governance Forum in Brazil in 2015.