Today, the Victorian Parliament tabled legislation that would spare teens from serious child pornography offences in cases of consensual sexting, and create two new summary (or minor) offences for: distributing an intimate image without consent, and threatening to distribute an intimate image without consent.
These laws respond to the need identified by the Victorian community and described in last year’s parliamentary inquiry into ‘sexting’.
While clearly, the laws have been designed to respond to sexting behaviours by young people, there is a common misconception that it is mostly young people (under 18) who are routinely engaging in ‘risky’ sexting-type behaviours. Yet, this isn’t really the picture that we’re getting from the research in Australia. For example, Kathy Albury and colleagues have undertaken research with young people, as have Murray Lee and colleagues, and both have suggested that youth sexual expression whether via technology or otherwise is not necessarily ‘risky’ or harmful by definition. We need as a society to take great care that we do not over-police and penalise young people for engaging in consensual sexual conduct.
Yet there are some instances, among both young people and adults, where intimate or sexual imagery is being used in ways that are harmful, exploitative and harassing to victims. Our research has found that the distribution or threats of distribution of a sexual image is also occurring in the context of domestic violence – whereby a partner or ex-partner uses the intimate image or the threat of its distribution as a means of harassing, humiliating and further controlling the (usually) woman victim. Much more than ‘sexting gone wrong’ or even ‘revenge porn’ – these behaviours are part of a broader pattern of violence and harassment against women which is why these new laws are so important. Previously, there was very little legal recourse for victims where a sexual or intimate image had been distributed without their consent.
These new laws are a step in the right direction – an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the harm caused by some of these behaviours. It will be important to monitor how they are applied in practice, and whether they are providing an effective mechanism for justice, as cases start to come before the courts.
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