When is sexting child pornography?

The other day I received a last minute phone call from CBC Radio Canada asking for an interview.  The journalist said the story concerned grade 7 and 8 students sending naked pictures; and that there had been some discussion about potential child porn charges.  I hadn’t heard or read anything about it and didn’t have time to prepare for an interview or come down to the studio.  The story didn’t appear until a few days later: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2015/04/18/waterloo-region-kids-involved-in-child-porn-investigation.html.  Based on what she told me, I did make a few comments, including the low numbers of adolescents sending naked photos.  These are US stats from my files on its prevalence:

The American Pediatric Society stated in 2011 that “estimates varied considerably depending on the nature of the images or videos and the role of the youth involved. Two and one-half percent of youth had appeared in or created nude or nearly nude pictures or videos. However, this percentage is reduced to 1.0% when the definition is restricted to only include images that were sexually explicit (ie, [sic] showed naked breasts, genitals, or bottoms). Of the youth who participated in the survey, 7.1% said they had received nude or nearly nude images of others; 5.9% of youth reported receiving sexually explicit images. Few youth distributed these images” (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/11/30/peds.2011-1730).

I also commented on the senselessness of applying laws on child porn (or “child sexual images”, the term preferred by people in the field) to this case.  But according to the article, some grade 7 and 8 students in Kitchener-Waterloo are indeed “under investigation” for allegedly being in possession of child pornography and could face charges”.  However, local police are looking at it more as an opportunity to educate, a strategy with which I wholeheartedly agree.

And yet, I cannot help reflecting on the suicides these past few years provoked by public humiliations, including posts of sexual assaults – a far cry from sexting, which some researchers have referred to as a contemporary form of spin the bottle (http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/485407/-sexting-just-a-modern-version-of-spin-the-bottle).  In the Waterloo case, there were “reports of nude photos being used as a “manipulation tool”.  Unlike the majority of sext messages with partially nude images, “some of the images were allegedly ‘frontal nude photos,’” and at one point, the photos were posted to Facebook”.

Using the images in this way does smack of adult revenge porn, popular with disgruntled exes, and now illegal in some countries like the UK (http://www.theverge.com/2015/4/13/8398691/revenge-porn-laws-uk-jail-time).

Apparently, these young students had started out having fun – which was mutual – but ended up using the images as blackmail.

When and how do you start teaching kids why this is not OK?

As you have read ad nauseum in these blogs, sexual health education starts at home and must continue throughout students’ schooling.  While it is laudable to teach children about safe (and respectful) Internet use as part of their health and physical education curriculum, if they are not taught explicitly about sexual abuse at an early age and do not understand the potential sequelae of sexual trauma, they will not develop empathy for people who suffer these traumas.  Nor will they disclose abuse and receive the therapy they need to heal.

Make no mistake: Distributing child sexual images is a form of sexual abuse.  Adults who post child sexual images tend to minimize their offense by saying they were not the ones to originally abuse the child(ren) pictured, willfully ignoring their re-victimization.  Charges recently laid against a man who encouraged sexual abuse and also fabricated stories of abuse involving his own family is a case in point (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/sentencing-hearing-set-to-begin-in-child-porn-case-for-ontarios-former-deputy-education-minister).

While it is difficult enough to teach children the importance of disclosing sexual abuse – that is, the negative side of sexuality – for some parents it is equally difficult to teach about positive sexuality.  This is where sexual health educators step in.  Given the opportunity, parents can easily brainstorm a list of what they understand to be a sexually healthy person.  In my workshops on raising sexually healthy children, parents’ lists always include respect of self and others as well as communication – the ability to say yes and to say no.  Children can be taught these principles from an early age.  They are the building blocks of consent and empathy.  The school is their partner in this critical education.

Aside from laying charges, the state has an education and advocacy role to play.  The Ontario government recently launched a campaign against sexual violence with these ads: http://www.ontario.ca/home-and-community/we-can-all-help-stop-sexual-violence).  One includes a scenario which I have often described in the classroom: When you send a sext message and/or photo, you never know who is on the receiving end.  I remember discussing this point with a group of young people in a shelter.  I asked if they had ever received a sext message. One participant took his cell out to read us one he had just received, nicely illustrating my point.

The law cannot go very far in addressing the education piece.  It is the parents and the Waterloo Region school board that have their work cut out for them.  One hopes they are up for the task.


Parent guide to consent: http://www.octevaw-cocvff.ca/know-more