Teenage Sexting: The Role of Cultural & Legal Discourses In Fuelling Moral Panic as a Vehicle to Censor Teenage Sexual Agency


This blog will explain the concept of “sexting” and examine the techniques employed by hegemonic cultural and legal discourses to vilify and pedagogically police the practice of “sexting” amongst teenagers (aged 12 to 18), as a means to protect social conceptions of childhood and adolescence innocence and asexuality. By framing “sexting” through the lens of child pornography, mainstream cultural and legal institutions adopt an alarmist, reductionist and moralistic discourse to fuel moral panic towards the practice of teenage “sexting”. This is used by cultural and legal actors as a censoring vehicle to strategically silence teenagers of sexual expression and deny them of their sexual agency.  Consequently, these hegemonic constructions of “sexting” lead to the moral determination of acceptable teenage sexual conduct by explicitly and implicitly censoring teenage conduct deemed socially inappropriate.

The importance of exploring this topic is linked to the goal of this blog, which is to disclose the hidden coded messages perpetuated by mainstream discourse and challenge individuals to look beyond what legal, media and educational institutions feed us, and instead deconstruct the hyperbolic messages of these institutions and how they shape our perceptions, understanding and world-view towards children and teenagers and their role as sexual agents. This topic is particularly relevant today as new digital media technologies will continue to evolve and shape teenage social behaviour. As these technologies,  give teenagers a platform to more easily express themselves, it is important to reveal discourses that may aim to silence and censor their digital expression.

The rapid integration of the internet and digital cellular technologies, such as the Smartphone, in our everyday lives has had a profound impact on social norms and practices. With the ability of the Smartphone to combine the functionality of phone calls, text-based interaction, internet browsing and digital video cameras, it is no wonder Smartphones have pervasively penetrated and transformed the presence and behaviours of audiences in public and private spaces. One such practice which has emerged since early 2000 with the advent of camera phones and smartphones is “sexting”.

The term “Sexting”, has emerged in reference to social relationships conducted by young people as a result of the rapid development and adoption of cellular and online digital information technologies. “Sexting” refers to the practice of an individual consensually producing and sharing sexually explicit photos and messages with another individual via his or her smartphone, the internet or social media. This is usually based on the trust and unspoken mutual understanding that the receiver of the image will act in good faith by keeping the image private from third parties. Indeed, with almost 75% of Australian teenagers (aged between 13 and 17) having access to a Smartphone and 92% of teenagers using the internet on a daily basis, it should come as no surprise that the self-generated practice of sending naked, semi-naked, or sexually explicit photos or messages via text message, email, Facebook, Instagram or other electronic forms of communication has become widely practiced by young adults and teenagers. In fact, in 2015, 50% of Australian teenage boys and girls used their mobile phones to send sexually explicit images of themselves. Similarly, a 2014 study found that 54% of American college students had produced and sent or received sexually explicit text messages and images when they were under the age of 18. These statistics demonstrate how common “sexting” has become amongst young people.

While adult “sexting” is widely accepted, and even encouraged amongst adults, it appears that mainstream discourse perpetuated by media, legal and educational institutions largely condemn teenage “sexting” due a number of concerns. Certain concerns relating to “sexting” are understandable. For example, there have been a number of reported cases, in which  “sexting” has been used as a weapon by third parties (i.e. classmates, peers, boyfriends, girlfriends) to humiliate and embarrass a young person through the unauthorised non-consensual distribution of that person’s ‘sexted’ image. Through the ease with which a smartphone can instantly disseminate a compromising image to the masses, it comes as no surprise that such distribution can result in the widespread circulation of the image amongst schools and communities without the permission of the young sexter.

Evidence from reported cases have indicated that teenagers who have their compromising photos circulating around the community can end up being ostracized, bullied, mocked and harassed by peers which leaves them feeling humiliated, anxious, guilty, ashamed, betrayed and suicidal.  As Alexandra Kushner (2013, p.283) found, “Peers often mock and torment the primary sexter about the photo or video through verbal and physical intimidation” which can lead to “some victims…skip[ping] classes and perform[ing] worse academically…[and] becom[ing] depressed”.

For example, in America, 13-year-old Hope Witsell, committed suicide in 2009, after an image she sent to her boyfriend of her breasts was distributed to students from six different schools. Similarly, 18-year-old, Jessica Logan committed suicide in 2009, after her ex-boyfriend distributed her naked photo to classmates. In a less severe but equally significant case, an Australian teenage girl experienced ongoing bullying after her sexually explicit photo went viral. In all three incidents, the victims were bullied, tormented and labelled derogatory terms such as “sluts” and “whores” for intimate acts that were committed privately in their personal relationships. These incidents demonstrate how “sexting” can lead to negative implications for young people when the trust between the sexter and the receiver is broken.

Indeed, these potential risks and harms can occur in both teenage “sexting” and adult “sexting”. Nevertheless, unlike adult “sexting”, teenage “sexting” has largely been cast in a negative light by media, educational and legal institutions.

For example, local and international news media coverage of sexting reveals the widespread perception that sexting is a significantly harmful practice, whichunspecified-1 teenagers only engage in due to their
out-of-control teenage hormones’, causing them to become ‘amoral’ and experience unhealthy and unsafe relationships. The occurrence of ‘sexting’ is described as an ‘epidemic’ and a ‘disturbing’ and ‘dangerous’ teenage ‘norm’, which causes “psychologically damaging” and ‘tragic’ consequences, such as sexual exploitation, withdrawal and suicide. Teenagers are also viewed as incapable of understanding the dangers of sexting as they are ‘stupid’ and not “brilliant at thinking through the consequences of their actions”.


In fact, the Australian legal landscape is also screaming to teenagers that they do not understand the harmful consequences of sexting and thus should refrain from the practice by criminalising it under child pornography legislation. In Australia, all sexual representations of minors who are, or appear to be under the age of 18, engaged in a sexual pose or activity, in any medium (whether it be film, photograph, drawing, comic etc), is illegal. This also includes depictions of private parts of a person, who is, or appears to be a minor. Thus it is an offence to produce, possess, send, supply, transmit, publish, distribute, advertise or promote material depicting a minor engaged in a sexual pose or activity. Each of these offences carry significant penalties including maximum imprisonment of 15 years and registration as a sex offender. As a result, even though the activity of producing and sharing sexualised images through the use of communication devices can be consensual between people under the age of 18, the federal and state legislation nevertheless have made this practice of “sexting” illegal.

In fact, law enforcement bodies have used their discretion to convict teenagers who have engaged in “sexting”. For example, between 2008 and 2011, more than 450 child pornography charges were laid against young people aged between 10 and 17, including 113 charges of producing child pornography material. In 2011, The Age reported on the conviction of two victorian teenagers for possessing “sexted” images. Both teenagers were charged with child pornography offences and placed on the sex offender register for eight years. A number of American states with similar laws have also adopted this stance. For example, in Alabama, four middle school students were arrested for consensually exchanging nude photographs of themselves (Kushner 2013, p.285). While in some states this approach is slowly changing with greater recognition of the absurdity of criminalising teenagers as child pornographers, the criminalisation of teenagers nevertheless reflects the concern that teenagers must be protected from a practice which is considered to be sexually exploitative and harmful to teenagers and their development.

These concerns are further amplified in this Australian educational film resource created by the Australian Federal Police through the Internet Safety Program Initiative, ThinkUKnow. Designed for secondary school teachers and students, this video is shown in schools to educate teenagers about the dangers of “sexting”. In the video, the boy Megan sent a “sext” to, forwards the photo, which is then circulated widely to students in the school and class. The video represents “sexting” as a purely harmful practice by framing Megan’s conduct as the source of the ‘problem’. This message is amplified by the voiceover at the end of the video stating: “Think you know what happens to your images? Who will see them? how they will affect you? Think again.” This message is supported by the promotional summary of the video, which provides: “a teenage girl’s experience of taking an inappropriate image of herself and ‘sexting’ it to a boy in her class and the unintended consequences’.

News media bodies as well as legal and educational institutions are the significant players in the community which guide social discourse. These bodies have clearly created the dialogue that teenage “sexting” is a social issue, which must be addressed and prevented to protect teenagers from harm.

However, while certain concerns that “sexting” can cause harmful effects such as the unauthorised distribution of “sexts”, are valid, why are they only raised in relation to teenage sexters? After all, adult sexters can experience the same problems of unauthorised widespread circulation of sexually explicit photos, which can also cause shame and humiliation. Indeed, “revenge porn” is also a common issue amongst adults. So why are teenagers the prime target for such discourse? Are teenagers really incapable of partaking in the practice of “sexting”? Is “sexting” really that harmful and evil PURELY for teenagers? Are all teenagers who consensually send “sexts” truly being sexually exploited?

In my opinion, by projecting misinformed ‘truths’, mainstream discourse guided by legal, media and educational institutions is strategically censoring teenage sexual expression by causing a moral panic towards the practice of teenage “sexting” because it is viewed as a threat to social conceptions of childhood and adolescence. Indeed, as with any new technology-fuelled behaviour, a social moral panic emerges, whereby mainstream discourse instills and perpetuates a social anxiety or fear, that either our values, morals, lives, or essentially, the very fabric of our society is under threat. Whether it be the 17th century “panic” that rail travel at high speed would make it impossible for passengers to breathe, or the “panic” that violent video games will turn us into murderous psychopaths, it is clear moral panics have existed since the conception of innovation. So it comes as no surprise that a moral panic has emerged in relation to “sexting”.

Indeed, when the prevalence and the impact of sexting is closely examined, it becomes apparent that the claims that “sexting” is a “harmful and evil practice for teenagers” are exaggerated, distorted and wrongly-directed, resulting in the circulation of misconceived notions about teenage “sexting”. This misinformed discourse has essentially censored the sexual agency of minors in sexualised contexts, by producing three main myths. 

Myth No.1: All Incidents of Teenage “Sexting” are Harmful

Acts associated to “sexting” can lead to negative implications. However is this absolutist assertion that all ‘sexting’ incidents are harmful? Then the answer is no. Considering the significant number of teenagers involved in “sexting”, it seems far-fetched to say that ALL these incidents have been harmful. As Angelides (2013, p.668) asserts: “it is scarcely conceivable – and there is no evidence to suggest – that all such incidences have been…unsafe or have resulted in harm”. Mainstream discourse has also mistakenly drawn a direct link of causation between harm caused and the very act of consensually producing a “sext” and sharing it with another person. In most situation, “sexts” are shared between two people (who usually like each other or are in a relationship) based on the trust that the receiver of the image will keep the image private. “Sexting” that occurs in these situations are not harmful as they are consensual and private.

Furthermore, when harm does occur in a “sexting” situation, it is usually when the trust between the sexter and the receiver is breached and the sexter’s photo is wrongfully distributed by the receiver or a third party. As discussed above, the harm is further amplified through the subsequent behaviours of third parties who use the “sext” to humiliate and embarrass the sexter, which can result in the sexter experiencing ongoing bullying and cyber-bullying. Thus, it is not the act of actually producing a “sext” that is the harmful behaviour, it is the wrongful act of third parties. Ifunspecified third parties respect the sexter’s privacy and act in good faith, then no such harm would eventuate. Nevertheless, mainstream discourse continues to perpetuate the notion that teenagers who send “sexts” are engaging in harmful behaviour. This was seen in the NSW “sexting” educational video. The shame and distress Megan feels is clearly because of the unauthorised actions of the boy and therest of the students in disseminating the photo. Nevertheless, Megan’s consensual conduct is problematised, rather than the unauthorised dissemination of her image.  This was also seen in the American case of AH v State 949 So. 2d 234 . Here, the primary sexter and her boyfriend were prosecuted under child pornography laws and placed on the sex offenders registry for a sexually explicit image that was consensually and privately shared between the couple (Birkhold, 2013, p.924). Considering the picture remained private and it was part of the couple’s sexual relationship, no harm was committed as a result of the “sext”. Nevertheless, the young couple was prosecuted.

Considering the child pornography laws were initially drafted with the intention of preventing harm to children and teenagers from sexual exploitation and paedophilia, it is a cruel irony that these very subjects are also being harmed through criminalisation for private, consensual acts. By being registered as sex offenders and having child pornography offences on their records, teenagers will experience difficulties in gaining future employment and in other areas such as travelling overseas. Categorizing teenagers in the same group as paedophiles would ironically cause greater emotional and psychological harm. Thus the approach taken by legal institutions is confusing and seems counter-productive.

Therefore, not all “sexting” incidents are harmful. Sexting usually occurs consensually and privately in healthy relationships. Instead, this discourse which supports criminalisation of teenagers as a means to support them is ironically more harmful.

Myth No.2: Unlike Adults, Teenagers are Mentally Incapable of “Sexting”

Incorrect. Mainstream dialogue promoting the assumption that teenagers are immature, stupid and incapable of safely engaging in the practice of “sexting” have been challenged by extensive research, which has demonstrated that the cognitive capacities, abstract reasoning and decision-making abilities of many minors as young as 14 years of age are equal to those of adults (Angelides 2013, p.685). Additionally, a survey conducted by Cosmo Girl found that 75% of teenagers are aware that sending sexually suggestive content “can have serious negative consequences” and 79% of teenagers and young adults agreed that “one has to be aware that sexy messages and pictures/video may end up being seen by more than just the intended recipient(s)”. This demonstrates that teenagers are making informed decisions about their sexual expression and agency as they understand “sexting” is a risky activity which could potentially lead to negative implications when images are distributed without consent. Thus the assertion of misconceived notions that teenagers need protection through the law as they are incapable of determining their sexual agency, is wrong.

Myth No.3: “Sexting” Teenagers Are Obviously Engaging in Such Practice  Because They Have Unnatural Tendencies (Similar to Paedophiles of Course)

Once again, incorrect! Teenagers actively engage in “sexting” because is it a form of asserting sexual agency and sexual expression. Teenagers are not naive about their conduct; instead, research suggests they are aware of the consequences and enjoy engaging in “sexting”. For example, in the Cosmo Girl survey, 66% of teenage girls and 60% of teenage boys send “sexts” because they find it “fun or flirtatious”; 52% of teenage girls sent a “sext” as a ‘sexy present’ for their boyfriend; 34% of teenage girls send “sexts” to ‘feel sexy’. Both teenage boys and teenage girls agreed that they enjoyed “sexting” because it was flirty, exciting and hot. Interestingly, 67% of the teenagers acknowledged that “sexting” was ‘dangerous’, which reinforces the notion that contrary to mainstream discourse, teenagers are informed about the potential risks associated with ‘sexting”. As Lara Karaian (2012, p.66) contends, this reflects “the complex spirals of pleasure and danger that youth who sext not only experience but also appear to accept”. These studies discount the mental capacity and harm discourse that law relies on when denying teenagers their sexual expression and agency (Lara Karaian, 2012, p.66).

By busting these sexting myths, it’s clear that “sexting” is not always an entirely harmful practice. Teenagers understand the risks associated with the wrongful distribution of ‘sexted’ images and engage in this practice because it is a form of healthy sexual expression. So, why do these myths exist? In my opinion, legal, media and educational institutions have created a dialogue stimulating a moral panic, because teenage “sexting” is viewed as a threat to our socially constructed perceptions that children and adolescents are innocent, vulnerable, do not have sexual agency and are asexual beings. Thus the innocence and sexual development of children and adolescents must be protected. But why? Why must children and teenagers be asexual? Why can’t they have sexual agency? Why can’t children as young as 10 be sexually active? Why are their bodies censored? Why was once a Renaissance painting of a naked child considered ‘art’ but now considered child abuse material? Why can’t adults have consensual non-exploitative sexual relationships with minors? Why are these topics so taboo?

To me, all these controversial questions can be answered accordingly: this is what social normative discourse since late modernity has deemed to be appropriate for children and teenagers, as well as the rest of the community in the 21st century. Accordingly, children and teenagers are declared as asexual, innocent beings who lack sexual agency. Any activity or behaviour that challenges this causes social anxiety because it is a threat to the social normative framework. This perhaps explains why the legal framework regulating “sexting” is only concerned with the conduct of a sexter who produces and sends a photo, rather than the unauthorised harmful viral circulation of a sexter’s photo. Indeed, the explicit censorship of teenage digital sexual expression is evidenced by its legal classification of sexting as child pornography.

This normative paternalistic approach toward childhood and adolescent behaviour can be explained by Alan Hunt. According to Alan Hunt, the cultural image of the ‘child’ has emerged because ‘risk assessment’ and ‘moral management’ has become a structural feature of late modernity (McLelland 2011, p.469). Arguably, this is also applicable to teenagers. Now, individuals are expected to be more responsible towards the self and society, and engage in the act of self-moralisation as a means to avoid risk. As a result of the “moralisation of risk” discourse, there is ‘a proliferation of…bureaucratic regulation in the everyday world’ and ‘an expansion of the responsibilities that burden citizens in a way that reinforces and even multiplies the regulatory impact’ (Alan Hunt quoted in McLelland 2011, p.469). The need to preserve the “asexual adolescent” is a clear example of this ‘risk anxiety’ and has particularly grown in the age of the Internet and digital media technologies, whereby it has become easier to monitor and regulate teenage sexuality, which has led to the establishment of age-appropriate sexual behaviour.

This anxiety is further perpetuated by social and legal institutions adopting a freudian logic when addressing “sexting” cases in light of child pornography laws. According to Matthew Birkhold (2013, p.911), when charging teenagers as perpetrators of self-produced child pornography, society appear to have subconsciously internalised a Freudian logic. As he explains in relation to the judiciary, “many judges fear that juvenile sexting will jeopardize the development of a normal sexual life” for children who send and receive sexted images, resulting in society being compromised as a whole. This is attributed to the reasoning that by taking such photos, and prematurely treating him/herself as a sexual object, the young sexter is harming his/her sexual maturation and his/her ability to develop future healthy and affectionate relationships (Birkhold 2013, p.930). Thus the premature exposure to sexual content and treatment as a sexual object, results in “sexting” being viewed as an injurious activity that impedes on sexual maturation and civilising constructions of morality for the teenager. As this is seen as a negative impact upon a teenager’s path to “normal” psychosexual development, social institutions have taken a paternalistic approach by condemning the primary sexter and the receiver, for the private and consensual production and possession of a sexually explicit image (Birkhold 2013, p.924). Consequently, “sexting” is construed as exclusively negative in a narrative that defines the activity as dangerous and a serious social problem (Angelides 2013, p.667).

In closing, mainstream cultural and legal discourses have fuelled moral panic in relation to the activity of “sexting” as a vehicle to censor teenage sexual agency. My aim has not been to undermine youth sexual exploitation; of course, any form of sexual exploitation which involves a child or an adult is wrong and should be criminalised. However, my goal has been to challenge the notion of teenage “sexting” as a purely harmful practice. Studies have indicated that teenagers positively engage in the practice of “sexting” as a means to sexually express themselves and assert their sexual agency. However, teenagers are being censored from asserting their sexual rights as “teenage sexting” is perceived as a threat to social constructions of childhood and adolescence innocence and asexuality. Perhaps if the perceptions towards the agency of children and teenagers change, then it may be foreseeable to picture a reality in which it is accepted that minors have sexual agency and private, consensual “sexting” between healthy relationships is accepted as a normalised practice.

Reference List

Angelides, S 2013, ‘Technology, Hormones and Stupidity’: The Affective Politics of Teenage Sexting”, Sexualities, vol.16, no.5, pp.665-689.

Birkhold, M 2013, ‘Freud on the Court: Re-interpreting Sexting & Child Pornography Laws’, Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, vo.23, no.2, pp.897-942.

Karaian, L 2012, ‘Lolita Speaks: ‘Sexting’, Teenage Girls and the Law’, Crime Media Culture, vol.8 no.1, pp.57-73.

Karaian, L 2014, ‘Policing ‘sexting’: Responsibilization, Respectability and Sexual Subjectivity in Child Protection/Crime Prevention Responses to Teenagers’ Digital Sexual Expression’, Theoretical Criminology, vol.18, no.3, pp.282-299.

Kushner, A 2013, ‘The Need for Sexting Law Reform: Appropriate Punishment for Teenage Behaviors’, University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change, vol.16, pp.281-302.

McLelland, M 2011, ‘Australia’s ‘child-abuse material’ legislation, internet regulation and the juridification of the imagination’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol.15, no.5, pp.467-483.


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