“Criminalising 21st Century Kids”: An Exploration of the Legal and Youth Justice Responses to Kids who Sext. / Van Der Westhuizen, Charlotte.

2019. 366 p.

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis



  • Charlotte van der Westhuizen PhD Thesis

    Other version, 2.73 MB, PDF document

    Embargo ends: 31/07/21


This thesis uses a socio-legal approach to explore the response of the English criminal law and youth justice practitioners to youth sexting in England and Wales. Specifically, the research explores the perceptions and practices of youth justice professionals responding to youth sexting cases and problematises the application of the existing criminal law to youth sexting activity. The social phenomenon of sexting is understood, in legal terms, as the sharing of sexually explicit images of children (Karaian 2012; Crofts, Lee, McGovern and Milivojevic 2015), yet the existing statutory framework fails to differentiate between the ‘teen experience’ and the protection of children under the age of eighteen from adults (Gillespie 2011). Drawing on a range of different but complementary theoretical perspectives concerning harm (Mill 1874, 2002; Ost 2009), youth vulnerability (Fineman 2008; Palmer 2016; Brown 2017) and youth justice (Rutherford 2002a; Fionda 2005), this research argues that the enforcement of ‘acceptable moral standards’ or, indeed, moral paternalism and anxieties regarding the sexualisation of young people are not enough to justify the criminalisation of young people who sext. The thesis instead argues that vulnerability is used as a vehicle to mobilise involvement of the criminal law in youth sexting practices by making evermore remote harms ‘more likely’. Such a position results in an over-extension of state intrusion into young people’s private (and sexual) lives and in doing so prompts concerns about welfare-orientated justice responses (Phoenix 2009) that risk harming young people rather than protecting them.

This thesis employs a mixed methodology, using a small-scale survey to illustrate the sexting practices of young people between the ages of sixteen to eighteen and one-to-one semi-structured interviews with youth justice practitioners on their perceptions and practices in relation to youth sexting cases. The survey demonstrates that young people send images at varying levels of so-called ‘indecency’ for a range of reasons. Existing legal responses fail to acknowledge this diversity and risk criminalising non-exploitative images and behaviour not intended to be sexual. Interviews with youth justice practitioners indicate that existing criminal law results in a range of sexting cases coming into contact with the criminal justice system at varying levels of seriousness (some involving sexual exploitation of young people aged under eighteen). Criminal justice responses to sexting employ a one-size-fits-all approach, which is justified based on professionals’ assumptions about the harms and ‘inappropriateness’ of sexting and the construction of young people as vulnerable. Young people are essentially deemed too young to ‘sext’ but old enough to know better, with the latter justifying preventative interventions.

This research problematises existing legal definitions, most notably the term ‘indecency’ and popular understandings of sexting-related harms. The thesis advocates for the decriminalisation of youth consensual sexting as a minimum, given that its construction as criminal behaviour hinders the discussion of matters beyond the need for abstinence, such as breaches of privacy and the importance of consent. It further advocates for a better adult understanding of sexting that reflects the sexting practices of young people, as articulated in both this research and existing studies. Most importantly, this research demonstrates that youth sexting practices are varied, a fact which is seldom reflected in adult perceptions and understandings of sexting, challenging the dominant risk-based discourses that stand behind the current one-size-fits-all response.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Sep 2019
Publication statusUnpublished - 2019

ID: 34340727