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Nude selfies: what if they are just an ordinary part of teenage life?

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Young people are peppered with advice and threats over the dangers of sending explicit images of themselves. But experts say both the law and the curriculum is lagging behind experience, and too often girls take the blame and face the shame

When Erin was 17, she went along to a seminar with her year 11 class where she was told not to photograph herself naked and definitelynot to send such a picture to someone else.

An older woman who had experienced first-hand how badly it could go wrong warned that repercussions could come at once, if the image was shared without her consent, or in the future, if it came to the attention of potential employers.

Exactly how that might happen, Erin wasnt sure. But she describes herself as an ambitious and pretty innocent little teenager back then taking such images hadnt really crossed her mind.

The overwhelming message that I personally took away from that was to never ever share naked photos or something terrible would happen. This was coming from a fairly liberal and progressive school.

Three years later, taking and sending nude selfies has come to form a significant and, she says, overwhelmingly positive part of Erins sex life. She says its made her more confident in her body and her own attractiveness, even the pictures she keeps to herself.

Those she does share with others she treats as almost a precursor to sex to talk about what I like and dont like. Then in person, that makes sex better.

But she sometimes worries that those she has sent in the past may one day be circulated without her consent. And although I know it wouldnt be my own fault, many would definitely blame me for taking them in the first place, including my family.

For the best part of a decade, young women like Erin have been told by police, parents and schools not to take any photographs that they would not want shared with the world. But many teenagers and experts alike say the current approach of prohibition-as-prevention simply doesnt make sense at a time when the practice is so commonplace.

They believe the issue should be approached from the perspective of harm reduction, and that only those who share the images should face repercussions, not those who take them. And they say society learns to see nude selfies of both teenage girls and boys, not to mention adults as neither demeaning nor empowering, but simply a part of life.

What if its just really ordinary and banal, a thing people do?, says Kath Albury, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales. We dont say, Were going to the shop for milk now: will that empower or demean you?

As Guardian Australia reported last week, experts have criticised educators approaches to sexting, which is often reactive with an emphasis on prevention and the law. But one of the challenges is changing the conversation when the curriculum and the law are already well out of step with the technology and the culture.

Figures for the prevalence of sexting are hard to come by. A Pew Research Center study from 2009 found only 4% of 12- to 17-year-olds who owned cellphones had sent such images (though 15% had received them from others); an Australian study of 11- to 16-year-olds from 2011 found similar rates.

A 2014 survey of 850 Cosmopolitan readers 99% female, with an average age of 21 found nearly 90% had taken nude photographs of themselves at some point, and of that figure, only 14% regretted it.

Teenagers spoken to by Guardian Australia suggested that it is far from universal, and more common among older teenagers in relationships.

I think, quite generally amongst my peers, nudes arent very common and its more like when youre in a relationship, says 16-year-old Ellie from Canberra. Girls have been told how terribly it can end.

Some of them have seen that with their own eyes, Ellie says. Friends of hers have had images circulated without their consent; it was an awful experience.

Sophie, a 19-year-old, says there wasnt really a big culture of sending or sharing them at her co-ed high school in Sydney. Youd send them to your boyfriend, if you had a boyfriend, but you wouldnt send to someone at school. Nobody really asked.

Better documented and at the crux of this issue are teenagers relationships with the internet. Another Pew Research Center study last year said nearly three-quarters of teenagers had or had access to a smartphone, and 24% were online almost constantly. Many also initiated or enacted romantic relationships on social media.

Two in five teenagers and particularly older girls were using Snapchat, a photo- and video-sharing app where messages disappear after a maximum of 10 seconds. (Images can be captures as screenshots but the sender is notified and doing so is seen as a social faux pas.)

Because of its ephemeral nature, it has been depicted as a sexting app. While its true that teenagers (and adults) use it for that purpose, of the 8,800 images reportedly shared on Snapchat every second, the vast majority would be pedestrian: food, school, work, pets, travel, public transport and (clothed) selfies.

If it sounds mundane, it is. Somewhat paradoxically, Snapchat is where you might share images that are too intimate or too banal for other social media platforms. A feature this month about the social media lives of teenagers told of them exchanging pictures of their shoes and bedroom ceilings just to keep the streak going.

The point is that everyones Snapchats all kind of suck, the journalist concluded.

I send nudes to my boyfriend, says Sophie, then corrects herself as though the word seems too laboured. Not like nudes, I dont go out of my way I dont know, its fun.

On Snapchat you just send two-second nudes the guys like, Oh, damn, and youre like, ha ha. Ive never sent nudes to anyone who I thought would ever in a million years share them.

The casualness, even levity with which many young people approach nude selfies is at odds with the potential consequences under commonwealth law, which says it is illegal to use mobile phones to create, transmit or possess material defined as child pornography material or child abuse material.

Though the intention is to regulate explicit images of children, not consensual behaviour between children, if you are under 18 and photograph or film your naked body, the effect may be the same. In some cases, this is at odds with the age of consent.

Some teenagers spoken to by Guardian Australia were aware that this was the law, but not all.

Police are continuing to investigate a website, believed to be hosted overseas, which encourages Australian students to upload explicit images of their female peers. But while several young people have been convicted under similar laws in the US, the likelihood of an Australian teenager being charged with creating or sharing explicit images is slim.

In 2010, in one of the few cases in Australia to emerge publicly, an 18-year-old man from western Sydney was charged over exchanging naked and semi-naked pictures with a 13-year-old girl. The girls father found the photos on her phone and complained to police. There was no indication that the man had shared the images, nor that their relationship had been physical. He was eventually released on a good behaviour bond, without an offence recorded.

By contrast, taking or sharing intimate images without the consent of the adult pictured, a practice commonly referred to as revenge porn, is not illegal despite recommendations of a Senate committee that it be criminalised.

The discrepancy is illustrative of a law that aims to police the culture of taking intimate images, rather than the crime of sharing them non-consensually. The repercussions of having a selfie shared without consent are far more likely to be social than criminal, and disproportionately borne by women.

In 2010 an organisation called ThinkUKnow a partnership between the Australian federal police, NineMSN, and Microsoft Australia, among others produced a two-minute video warning young people about the dangers of sexually charged or explicit photos.

In Megans Story, a teenage girl sends a selfie of her wearing her bra, its implied to a boy in her class, who forwards it around their classmates. The girls react with disgust; the boys smirk. When it reaches her teachers cellphone, he stares into middle distance, disappointed. Megan flees from the classroom in tears.

Think you know what happens to your images? asks a mature male voiceover. Who will see them? How they will affect you? Think again.

We blame the victim every time

Even at a time before victim blaming was a widely understood concept, the video was thought to be tone deaf, presenting only public humiliation and shame for Megan, who thought she knew, and no consequences at all for the boy who betrayed her trust.

In an open letter to the videos producer, one blogger likened it to a drink-driving ad that showed a pedestrian being run over, the car zooming away, and then a caption that said, Watch where youre walking, pedestrians.

Boys and men take and share images of themselves naked, but without the same stigma; even those who illicitly share those they are sent typically experience fewer repercussions than the women pictured.

Josh, a 19-year-old from Sydney, suggests that boys feel able to share photos sent to them in confidence because of what he terms a spoiled child persona of I can do what I want, and I wont get in trouble. He says that perspective is only reinforced by the absence of repercussion.

One of the reasons I think this is still going on is we blame the victim almost every single time, whether its rape or nudes. (He, and others spoken to by Guardian Australia, said the trade in nude selfies was especially rife at all-boys schools.)

This double standard is felt keenly by young women, who are more likely to be told not take intimate images of themselves than their male peers are to be told not to share any they are sent.

A parent complained that that, in the wake of the news of a website sharing explicit images, female students at Kambrya College in Melbournes south-east were told to lower their skirts, refuse their boyfriends requests for a sexy selfie, and otherwise protect their integrity. (The principal later said it was never the schools intention that its enforcing its uniform policy and the exploitation of girls online should become linked.)

Young women are always put in a gatekeeper role theyre always told, Just say no, dont do this, dont do that, and young men dont really get that same message, says Anne-Frances Watson, a lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology who has studied approaches to sex education.

Theyre not put in any kind of role of responsibility when it comes to anything around consent.

The current approach of prohibition-as-prevention does young people of both genders a disservice, Watson says. Theyre not taught how to have healthy relationships in school. Theyre taught not to have relationships.

Heres the thing about telling teenagers what to do: it doesnt work. Particularly in this case, where the nuances yes, nuances of nude selfies dont typically translate across generations.

For a generation that communicates visually, photos are limitless in the meanings they can convey.

Selfies can be a diary, or a dialogue, or a communication like, Hey, thinking of you, heres a picture, or they can be entirely for self-reflection, Kath Albury says. If you are of a culture where taking a picture just to say hi or Im thinking of you is a valid form of everyday communication, then why would that not also be part of a flirtation or sexual relationship?

For a qualitative study Albury co-authored in April 2013, she spoke to 16- and 17-year-olds, who told her that rates and repercussions of so-called sexting were overblown in the media. They did not use that term themselves, describing it as inherently negative, even sinister: pictures, some interviewees suggested, only became sexting when someone was offended.

Young people saw it as an ordinary or mundane practice, says Albury, but by no means a universal one.

In many cases, teenagers told her that adults construed sexual statements where that was not their intention; she gave the example of teachers or parents accusing a young girl of sexualising yourself by simply pouting in a selfie, or taking a picture of herself wearing a new bra to show her friends.

Its saying, You may not think youre sexual, but you are, she says. Its a kind of insistence that they must see themselves through adults eyes theyre quite resentful of that.

As confronting as it is for adults to see teenagers documenting themselves in a state of undress, it is distressing for teenagers to be told they are pornographic when, in many cases, that was not their intention, says Albury.

But this generation gap is one reason the issue feels so fraught: it perfectly intersects fears of new technology, young womens sexuality, and celebrity culture that tend to divide old and young.

Similarly counter-productive, says Albury, is the debate over whether nude selfies are empowering or demeaning as though theres this huge continuum and its got to be at one end or the other. We say that about Kim Kardashian all the time.

She is in favour of changing the law to better accommodate teenagers self-taken photos, as well as to punish non-consensual sharing, pointing to an amendment bill passed in Victoria as evidence to show how exceptions can be made.

Since 2 November 2014, no one can be prosecuted in the state for taking explicit images of themselves. It is also not an offence if you are under 18 and no person pictured is more than two years younger than you, and the photo does not depict a serious criminal offence.

But Albury is clear that the issue should be principally approached from the perspective not of criminality, not of prohibition, but of harm minimisation. She suggests addressing nude selfies as part of education under way about consent and respectful relationships a kind of etiquette, if you like, in the digital space rather than a technological, scary problem.

Its reasonable to assume that the stigma around intimate images may lessen with time. But for as long as it persists, young women need to be taught how best to assess the risk of taking them.

Anne-Frances Watson says young men and women should be given practical information, like keeping their faces and any identifying features out of pictures: Thats a start, she says.

Then it should be more of a focus on the people who are sharing those images thats disgraceful behaviour, she says. If somebody sends you a picture of their naked body, theres a certain amount of trust there: dont breach that trust.

The current approach of telling young women not to take such photos is failing on both fronts: practical and ideological.

Were always warned that the images we publish are up on the internet forever, but were never given proper advice for what to do if were being exploited, says Amy, a 15-year-old in Melbourne.

And victims are paying the price, she adds.

Their personal images were exploited, their trust was betrayed ultimately, theyre the ones who are going to lay awake at night, thinking about what they have done.

All the names of the young people interviewed for this article have been changed

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/sep/01/nude-selfies-what-if-they-are-just-an-ordinary-part-of-teenage-life

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