Back in August, in Cameron’s crusade and the ‘sexting’ generation, Heretic TOC noted the British prime minister’s triple-pronged attack on internet pornography, inevitably underpinned by the supposed need to protect “innocent” children from exposure to it, as though they had no independent interest of their own – a point deeply undermined, it may be recalled, by an NSPCC report showing that sexting now plays a big part in children’s lives.
Sexting, indeed, is clearly exciting a lot of grown-ups, too, or rather inciting them to a discursive frenzy, not all of it expressing the dominant moral panic narrative. One fascinating departure from the mainstream appeared in the September issue of the sociological journal Sexualities, by Brian Simpson, a specialist in children and the law who has a particular interest in the regulation of cyberspace and social media. In his article, “Challenging childhood, challenging children: Children’s rights and sexting” Simpson does something deeply unfashionable: he doesn’t merely mention children’s rights in the title, he actually takes the concept seriously.
His 10,000-word piece examines all the usual rhetoric, whether centred on the need to protect children from cyberbullying, concerns over sexuality being essentially private, and anxiety that the young are getting out of control – with its unspoken fear that self-interested patriarchal control over female bodies (girls’ virginity and reproduction) is under threat. He also considers the part that legal interventions against sexting have played, citing American cases in which youngsters have been taken to court, under laws supposedly passed to prevent harm coming to them. The effect, ironically, has been to see them punished by being condemned as pornographers and placed on a sex offender register, giving them a criminal record likely to blight their lives for decades. In order to “save” them, the courts thus harm them, deeply and lastingly.
What the mainstream discourse constantly fails to do, says Simpson, even in formal studies, whether quantitative (how much sexting is going on) or qualitative (what sexting actually entails), is to examine values. It is just assumed that sexting is bad, and focuses the debate on how to suppress it – an aim which generally extends to all other manifestations of youthful sexuality too. Where he takes the debate forward is not only through invoking children’s rights, a concept which peaked in public debate as long ago as the late 1970s, but also in identifying the new technology of the internet age, especially the camera phone, as transformative. Young people as media makers inhabit a techno-culture, “a world where camera phones are well embedded within everyday life and are used to constitute identity”, says Simpson, citing with his own emphasis words from another recent study (Chalfen 2013). So as part of this scene the selfie, it seems, including the sexy selfie, has a role in generating self itself.
Bollocks? Maybe. Or tits. But at the very least there is food for thought here.
Simpson, as a legal expert, understands the importance of children’s rights – although their development and enforcement have been painfully slow – but also sees children, especially teenagers, creating interesting new realities through their sexting conduct. While it is commonplace now, he says, to state that the internet has blurred the public–private divide, “one could say that sexting is making us have a discussion about the boundaries of what is public and what is private. In other words the act of sexting has a social beneﬁt in that it pushes our boundaries.”
Social benefit? Wow! That looks radical. I think he could be right when we consider how the concept of personal privacy in recent years has been used in order to push naked bodies out of public space, with the effect of making mere nudity seem toxically dangerous and obscene. It can hardly have escaped the attention of most heretics here, certainly not the male ones in Britain, that in the interests of privacy more and more gents’ public toilets are fitted these days with dividers that prevent any view of the “member” at the next urinal. Not that I am interested in the musclemen’s mighty monsters in the changing rooms and “conveniences” at my gym club, although convivial joshing with complete strangers in the pub loos (“Hello, mate, they tell me this is where all the big nobs hang out!”) used to be one of the pleasanter minor civilities of life here. Now the blokes tend to be nervous about being thought gay, or looked at by someone who might be: adults now often choose to pee in the WC rather than at a urinal, as well as boys who surely do so following “safety” instruction. Likewise the formerly communal showers in sports clubs now tend to have individual cubicles, and schools do likewise. The message for kids, of course, is that they must not show their bodies to others or be seen by anyone else, whether staff members or classmates: what is ostensibly done to protect their privacy serves mainly to intensify sexual taboos. Perhaps the present teenage sexting generation will come to see all this covering and hiding as a neurotic absurdity.
I have no idea whether Simpson has such issues in mind, but in relation to the defiantly let-it-all-hang-out growth of teen sexting in the teeth of adults’ cover-up culture, he continues:
Children have developed within this exhibitionistic culture…Albury and Crawford found some young people who actually described their sexting in…positive terms as part of their intimate relationships. In this sense sexting is a truly subversive activity that not only recasts sexual citizenship and identity but also reinforces new paradigms of transparency and openness.
Many young people report sexting as part of ﬂirting, seeking affirmation, testing their attractiveness and so on, which is all about establishing their identity. While this does not mean such use of technology is [not] fraught with risks and sits within a context of gender expectations in society, there is also the importance of the child’s right to have an identity, express her or himself and to play. Such rights are all contained within, for example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course, as with sexting generally, the right to play is often romanticised and articulated in terms of the innocence of the child in the playground. But this right also connects with risk taking, the pushing of boundaries and identity formation. The Charter for Children’s Play, for example, provides in its introduction that: “Play allows children to experience and encounter boundaries, learning to assess and manage risk in their lives; both physical and social”.
Now this really is radical, hinting as it does that real children, i.e. those who have yet to reach their teens, children who play, should be allowed to manage at least a limited amount of risk in their lives instead of being swaddled in a stifling cocoon of eternal infancy.
Law reform to decriminalise consensual sexting between children has been discussed, Simpson says. But reform going any further, if it were to challenge the view that sexting is inherently inappropriate, would undermine adult authority more generally over children, across the range of health and welfare issues that affect them. Actually, he says such law reform will undermine adult authority, not would, as though this is more than just a pipe dream. His present post is with the University of New England, Australia, where he is an associate professor. Perhaps the Australian scene gives him expectations for imminent change that I do not detect in Britain or elsewhere. If so, let’s hope he is right.
In the meantime, I will close by drawing heretics’ attention to what has actually happened to children’s rights in Britain in the decades since the burgeoning of the modern concept around forty years ago. To be brief: not much. There is a wonderful timeline on the development of young people’s rights in the UK on Wikipedia. It is an impressively enormous compilation, starting in the Middle Ages, with more and more entries for each century, the short 21st century already getting almost as many entries as the entire 20th, as though things are getting better and better at an accelerating rate. If only! It is a woefully misleading impression, made worse because the plethora of entries disguises the fact that many of them are not about children’s rights at all: mostly they comprise a riotous mishmash of child welfare and protection issues, rather than rights that can be exercised by children themselves. The latter are the only true rights: rights enforceable by children in ways that are capable, when necessary, of overriding adult authority, even that of parents.
Looking through this long list across the entries for the last forty years, I see one truly great leap forward, in 1985, and two considerably more limited triumphs. The great leap was the establishment of Gillick competence, which I had occasion to mention last month in The heinous crime of truth-telling. The timeline entry puts it thus: the Gillick ruling “lays down that the authority of parents to make decisions for their minor children is not absolute, but diminishes with the child’s evolving maturity; except in situations that are regulated otherwise by statute, the right to make a decision on any particular matter concerning the child shifts from the parent to the child when the child reaches sufficient maturity to be capable of making up his or her own mind on the matter requiring decision.”
As for the two lesser gains, these were the Summerhill judgement (2000), and a ruling on biometric information (2012). I’ll leave you to look them up on the timeline, where you can also browse at your leisure and ponder the vast children’s rights work that remains to be done.
Albury, K. & Crawford, K., Sexting, consent and young people’s ethics: Beyond Megan’s Story. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 26(3): 463–473 (2012)
Chalfen R., ‘It’s only a picture’: Sexting, ‘smutty’ snapshots and felony charges. Visual Studies 24(3): 258–268 (2013)
Simpson, B., Challenging childhood, challenging children: Children’s rights and sexting, Sexualities 16(5/6) 690–709 (2013)