The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

A blanket approach to young lust is leading to ludicrous prosecutions

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OK kids, your teachers may have already read you out the letter we sent, but, as a representative of Nottinghamshire Police, I just wanted to “lay down the law”, as it were. The long and the short of it is, if you’re under-18 and send a ‘sext’ to your boyfriend or girlfriend, like any kind of nudie pic, of your own body, you could be placed on the sex offenders register. I see a few hands up. Yes, you’d be on the same list as “paedos like Rolf Harris”. No, the court does not have to recognise “we’re going to be together forever”, or “it was just for fun”, as a defence. Lots of hands now. I’ll close on this. It’s for your own benefit. With regret, we’d label you a criminal, for life, for your own protection. For sexting. So stop it.

Based on a true story, that is. This week Nottinghamshire Police sent a round robin to every school in the county which attempted to beat back the waves of sexting among their pupils. “We just want to get the message out there that this is a very serious offence”, said Detective Sergeant Jan Rusdale.

The logic here is worth an eyeball: sexting is bad, Rusdale implies, not so much because it is inherently harmful, or amoral, or society-undermining, but because the law attaches a severe penalty to it. The letter itself made clear how harsh that punishment can be. One girl was given a police caution, effectively leaving her with a criminal record - something which really will  "stick 2 u" - for sending a topless picture to her then-boyfriend.

The roots of this mess lie in the law’s inability to distinguish between consensual and non-consensual sexual activity between minors. There are times when the authorities can be of use in protecting young people, by, say, coming down on anyone who distributes an image of a minor without their consent.

But a blanket approach to young lust is leading to brain-twisting legal contortions, and far beyond the Nottingham ring road. Last month Viriginia police came within, ahem, inches of injecting a 17-year-old boy with a Viagra-like drug, in order to check if his aroused member was the same one that appeared in an explicit video received by his 15-year-old girlfriend. If it was, the owner would have faced charges. Only a public outcry prevented the authorities from taking a picture of a young man's penis, to prove he'd also taken a picture of his penis - or, as future generations would see it, The Moment When It All Stopped Mattering.

Young people are going to sext, so long as they have smartphones and hormones, and it is not really the law’s business to stop them. Too often legal barriers are put up to ‘fix’ society’s problems, most of the time without much success. More maturity is in order. And I don't mean from Generation Sext.

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