Major political parties fail to halt mass criminalisation of young people

Civil liberties campaign opposes labelling teen ‘sexters’ as sex offenders

A politically charged moral panic over young people’s attitudes to sexuality is leading to Internet censorship and the labelling of ordinary young people as sex offenders, civil liberties campaign Backlash warns today.

Backlash will campaign for a change in the law so that prosecutions intended to halt child abuse are not used to instigate the abuse of children through the criminal justice system.

Backlash Action

Backlash is extending its remit to provide legal advice for young people who are threatened with criminal prosecution for possessing sexually explicit images of themselves and shared consensually on digital media.

The campaign will help fund effective defences when support available under legal aid is inadequate, and develop arguments for a judicial review of existing legislation.

Backlash will also disseminate a growing body of robust academic research evidence to policymakers, challenging the current legislative process, which is dominated by a climate of ignorance and hysteria regarding young people’s attitudes to sexual relationships.

This campaign is spearheaded by obscenity law expert and Backlash’s legal adviser, Myles Jackman.

‘Sexting’ – criminalising ordinary young people

Millions of young people exchange explicit texts and images with each other over the Internet. For the most part this is equivalent to the flirting and sexual exploration typical of adolescence in the pre-digital age. There is no evidence that these activities are intrinsically harmful. However, a flaw in existing legislation means that possession of all sexually explicit images of people under 18 is classified as ‘indecent’. This means that people from the age of 16 to 18 are able to consent to sex, but are unable to possess images of their own lawful sexual activities.

A 16 to 18 year old that creates a nude picture of themselves using a camera-phone is, under current law, guilty of the serious offence of creating ‘child pornography’, even though their actions do not plausibly justify such a label.

When the authorities detect these images, teenagers themselves become subject to laws originally aimed at stopping child abuse, even though no abuse has taken place. These prosecutions cause immense mental distress and disruption to education. A prosecution, regardless of the sentencing outcome, severely harms the future life prospects of young people. For example, ordinary teenagers, who pose no harm to those around them, can still be forced to sign the sex offenders’ register and prevented from participating in a broad range of employment, civic and personal activities years after the offence has been recorded.

Inappropriate criminalisation is a significant danger for ordinary young people growing up in the digital age, made worse by the fact that the source of the danger is the criminal justice system.

Porn panic – a cross-party delusion

Instead of tackling this flawed legislation to focus on acts of abuse, major political parties have been caught in an arms race towards more criminalisation and censorship of people’s sexuality. This process has been fostered by knee-jerk responses to pressure groups that ignore academic research evidence into young people’s sexuality and use of sexually explicit media.

An NSPCC survey claimed, earlier this month, that a tenth of twelve to thirteen year olds had reported the ‘fear’ that they were ‘addicted’ to pornography. The survey has since been exposed as unreliable, as it was a developed by a marketing company that offers to produce survey outcomes based on pre-defined conclusions.

Nevertheless, the Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, pronounced that the Conservatives would impose age-restrictions to “protect our children from harmful material”. This pledge was almost immediately matched by the Labour Party. Such an approach ignores alternative approaches, including providing effective sex education to young people.

Myles Jackman commented: ‘By criminalising young people between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, our political and justice systems show how disconnected they are from technological change and social values, which is especially worrying so close to an election where politicians have been exploiting selfie culture.’

For more information, contact:

Myles Jackman (legal adviser): 07791 436 100

Notes for Editors:
1. Backlash is an umbrella campaign providing academic, campaigning and legal resources in defence of freedom of sexual expression.
2. Myles Jackman is a solicitor advocate and expert in Obscenity Law. For more background, visit his professional website.
3. Jackman’s commentary on the criminalisation of teenage ‘sexting’ and moral panic driven legislation can be read here.